Strict Liability in California Auto Defect Cases
The principle of strict liability is an important issue to discuss when it comes to automotive defects. In accordance with this standard of legal responsibility, an auto manufacturer, retailer or distributor may be held liable for injuries caused by a defective product regardless of specific fault or negligence.
To get a better understanding of this principle in action, let us first define strict liability in more detail. The basic definition of strict liability is legal accountability that does not depend on actual negligence or intent to harm. In other injury claims, a plaintiff (injured party) must prove negligence or wrongdoing of some kind on the part of the defendant (allegedly at-fault party) in order to recover financial compensation for injuries suffered. When strict liability applies, the plaintiff does not need to prove negligence or wrongdoing. The plaintiff must still prove that the defendant should be held liable, but the burden of proof will not depend on a specific act of negligence, inaction that constitutes negligence or intentional wrongdoing.
Strict liability in an auto defect claim may mean that a company may be held accountable for injuries a defective or poorly designed product may cause:
"A manufacturer, distributor, or retailer is liable in tort if a defect in the manufacture or design of its product causes injury while the product is being used in a reasonably foreseeable way." Soule v. GM Corp. 8 Cal.4th 548, 560 - 1994).
If a vehicle owner is using his or her vehicle in a "reasonably foreseeable way," that is, in such a way as a reasonable person would in similar circumstances, and yet a defect in the vehicle or vehicle part caused an accident or other incident that left the owner or another party injured, the plaintiff may be able to hold the manufacturer or other party responsible for the defect accountable.
There are three unique categories in which a strict liability claim may fall. The first involves manufacturing defects, in which a properly designed product is improperly manufactured and causes injury as a result. The second involves a poorly designed product that, although it may have been properly manufactured, is unsafe or malfunctions and causes injury. The third involves inadequate or improper warnings regarding the product, such as a failure to warn about using the product in certain circumstances, which could result in injury.
"Strict liability has been invoked for three types of defects – manufacturing defects, design defects, and 'warning defects,' i.e. inadequate warnings or failures to warn." Anderson v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. 53 Cal.3d 987, 995 - 1991).
Vehicle owners, passengers and bystanders (such as pedestrians, bicyclists or occupants of other vehicles) may be able to bring product liability lawsuits against auto manufacturers, retailers or distributors involving vehicle defects:
"If anything, bystanders should be entitled to greater protection than the consumer or user where injury to bystanders from the defect is reasonably foreseeable." ( Elmore v. American Motors Corp. 70 Cal.2d 578, 586 - 1969).
Proof in an Auto Product Liability Claim
If negligence or intentional wrongdoing need not be proven in an auto product liability lawsuit, what factors does a plaintiff need to prove? Though every case is different, the following is a basic outline of the key factors that must be proven:
- The product was defective;
- The plaintiff was injured; and
- The product's defect was the proximate cause of the victim's injuries.