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Faulty Seatbelts and Air Bags

In Georgia there is a doctrine known as Res Ipsa Loquitur, which translated means “the thing speaks for itself.” Some things are so manifestly the result of someone’s negligence that a jury can infer negligence on the part of the defendant. In other words, the evidence proves the point. For example, a scalpel left in the stomach of a surgery patient infers the negligence of the doctor. Also, a barrel of flour falling out a second story window infers the shopkeeper’s negligence.When applied, this doctrine creates an inference of negligence that the defendant must affirmatively disprove.

To apply this doctrine in a negligence case, the plaintiff must usually show:

  1. That harm would not have occurred without someone’s negligence;
  2. The “thing” which caused the harm was under the exclusive control of the defendant; and
  3. There is an absence of a reasonable explanation as to how the harm occurred.

Over the course of my practice, many accident victims will tell me that in addition to being hit by a negligent driver of another automobile, their own car failed to protect them in the accident. For example, the seatbelt did not hold or the airbag did not deploy. These clients will often question me about adding a product liability suit to the auto accident claim against the negligent driver.

This week the Georgia Court of Appeals in Millers vs. Ford Motor Company upheld the grant of summary judgment (a motion filed by the defendant that defeats the plaintiff’s case before it ever gets to trial) to the automobile manufacturer, Ford Motor Company.In that case the plaintiffs alleged that the seatbelt and side air bag in their Lincoln Town Car were defective and contributed to their injuries when they were struck by another car.

The court held that the plaintiffs failed to show that the seatbelt and side air bag were defective when they left the defendant manufacturer. The court ruled that mechanical devices sometimes get out of working order without any negligence on anyone’s part. Also, once a car leaves the manufacturer, the manufacturer no longer has control over the car and cannot be liable for subsequent repairs or tampering with the vehicle.

In a product liability suit, the plaintiff must show:

  1. There was a defect in the product that varied from its intended design;
  2. The defect existed when it left the manufacturer; and
  3. The defect was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

This concept is called “strict liability.” If the plaintiff fails to meet the burden of proof, the court will likely grant summary judgment, dismissing the case without a trial.

Product liability suits require a good deal of pre-litigation investigation in order to determine if a truly defective product exists.Plaintiffs must be prepared to show the condition of the car following the purchase(all repairs, alterations etc.) and should usually rely on expert testimony to prove negligent manufacture.After the filing of suit, extensive discovery will be necessary to prove a product defect.Consultation with an attorney will best help you determine if the facts in your case “speak for themselves.”