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Motor Vehicles Hazards Archive | Introduction | Litigation's Role
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Litigation's Role

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act recognized that regulation alone would not be sufficient to curb the design and manufacture of needlessly hazardous motor vehicles. It specified that, "Compliance with any Federal motor vehicle safety standard...does not exempt any person from any liability under common law." (Sec. 108(c), 80 Stat. 723) In other words, individuals or groups could litigate against manufacturers for injuries caused by hazardous motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment even though the vehicles met federal safety standards.

Traditionally, however, such litigation had been hindered by the widespread view that the cause of the motor vehicle crash injury epidemic was essentially driver behavior. The view prevailed in the courts as well as in conventional public wisdom, and was promoted by the auto industry. Even though the 1966 Act recognized the role of motor vehicle design in causing or aggravating car-crash injuries, the courts were not ready to abandon the driver responsibility approach.

This was best illustrated by the 7th Circuit Court's 1966 decision in Evans v. GM, which held that a car manufacturer had no obligation to design its vehicles for other than their "intended use," and that the "intended use" did not include collisions. Evans v. General Motors Corporation, 359 F.2d 822, 825 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 385 U.S. 836 (1966).

Two years later, however, a new understanding began to emerge in the courts - one that more accurately reflected the spirit of the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the lessons learned in Congressional hearings leading up to its passage. In Larsen v. GM, the 8th Circuit held that a manufacturer had a duty to anticipate that when its vehicle was in a crash, a second collision of the occupant with the interior of the vehicle might occur, and that this "second collision" could be needlessly injurious unless the interior had been adequately designed to manage the crash forces of the occupant in a protective manner. Larsen v. General Motors Corporation, 391 F.2d 495, 502 (8th Cir. 1968).

Larsen and similar rulings paved the way for increased access to the courts for people injured in car crashes due to hazardous vehicle designs. Today, litigation against motor vehicle manufacturers on behalf of people injured by vehicle hazards is an important component of the hazard control effort.

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