COVID-19 UPDATE: We are open! Our team is working and offering consultations via phone, e-mail, and video conferencing.

Investigating Auto Defects Through Social Media

Craig McClellan

In auto defect cases, it is not uncommon to find that an auto manufacturer knew about a defect but failed to start recall proceedings or otherwise warn consumers about that defect. This was true in the Toyota unintended acceleration case as well as a more-recent recall for defective floor mats in its Lexus RX 350. The NHTSA can fine companies for failing to timely report recalls -- Toyota received a record fine ($17.5 million) for its inaction regarding the Lexus RX 350 -- but fines alone do little to increase consumer safety and confidence.

How can we learn about auto defects sooner so that fewer people are injured in car accidents caused by those defects?

The NHTSA has some solutions, and one of them may surprise you: It's investigators search social media sites for data about specific auto issues. A social media search is often a last resort, once the NHTSA believes that it needs more information to understand the scope of a problem. Before investigators scour Facebook or Google+, they will look at fan sites, bulletin boards, auto magazine comments and other websites that could provide information about an auto defect. If they find common threads, they may begin an investigation.

According to Assistant Professor Alan Abrahams, who has studied online discussion forums, "Social media analytics provides low-cost, real-time insight into defect existence and severity, by vehicle component category." He added that auto manufacturers may do the same to detect issues early and prevent an NHTSA complaint or media attention.

Social media has become important in many aspects of litigation, from detecting issues (such as auto defects) to providing evidence for court. If, for example, a person complained of an auto defect on Facebook, that information may be used in court to help underline the challenges that the client faced in real time. It can also have the opposite effect. For example, imagine what could happen if a client badmouths an auto company or a judge on Twitter while the case is still open.