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Can I Sue for Damages in a Vehicle Recall or Defect?

How California laws deal with product personal injury claims

According to a study from the United States Department of Transportation (DOT), as many as 94% of all motor vehicle accidents occur because one or more drivers made an avoidable mistake. Of course, not all motor vehicle accidents can be blamed on a driver. Although they are less common, some auto accident injuries occur because of dangerous or defective automobiles or auto parts. Under California law, product designers and manufacturers can be held strictly liable for injuries caused by defective products.

Some product-related lawsuits are best suited for consumer law attorneys, such as false advertising, while others are handled by class action suits. “Sometimes when there’s a product failure, it’s more minor and doesn’t result in injury—or there are many minor injuries,” says Kristine K. Meredith, a personal injury attorney with Danko Meredith in Redwood City. “Those are generally handled as class actions because the cost of replacement and damages will be the same for everybody.”

When there’s a serious injury involved, that’s another story.

The Elements of a Defect Product Claim in California

Injured victims can bring a product liability lawsuit against a product designer, a product manufacturer, and, in some cases, even a product seller. Under California law, victims who were injured by a defective vehicle or defective auto part can hold the defendant legally responsible through a product liability claim. To prevail in this type of personal injury lawsuit, a plaintiff is generally required to prove that: 

  1. The defendant actually designed, manufactured or marketed the product
  2. The product was defective while in the possession of the defendant
  3. The injured victim used the product in a reasonably foreseeable manner
  4. The defective product caused actual harm to the victim

If you'd like more general information about this area of the law, see our products liability law overview.

How Much Can You Get?

As for what you can expect in compensation—a common question—Meredith says it depends on a lot of factors, including the jury and the quality of your attorney.

“If it is determined a manufacturer should be held accountable for the injuries, then they must make the individual whole again,” she says. “In a vehicle case, there might be a repair cost; the cost of medical care and future medical care; non-economic damages like pain and suffering; the cost of lost wages and lost future wages; and, in California, it includes a loss of earning capacity. So, for example, if there was a young mother who wasn’t currently employed but who previously worked as a chemist at a pharmaceutical company and planned to return but now would not be able to, then we could prove she’s entitled to recover lost earning capacity.”

Strict Liability: Explained

In California, most personal injury cases are based on the negligence standard. In other words, plaintiffs are generally required to prove that a defendant failed to take due care and that their careless or reckless conduct actually contributed to the resulting injuries. However, product liability cases are different.

“There isn’t a negligence component,” Meredith says. “If it’s proven that the product is defective or they failed to warn, then they’re responsible for all the injuries that flow from that failure.”

California defective product lawsuits are based on strict liability. As explained in the Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions, strict liability means that a defendant can be held liable even in the absence of a finding of fault. If you can prove that a product is defective and that you suffered injuries as a result, you can hold a defendant liable. Plaintiffs do not have to prove that the defendant was negligent in designing or manufacturing the defective product.

How Does a Vehicle Recall Impact a Claim?

In general, auto recalls happen after the manufacturer or a regulator discovers a safety issue. Notably, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) keeps a public database of vehicle safety issues and recalls. Vehicle recalls have a complicated impact on defective product claims.

“In product liability cases, a recall doesn’t automatically mean the manufacturer is responsible,” Meredith says. “The attorney still has to prove their case, and sometimes the recall comes into evidence and other times it doesn’t.”

Just because a recall was issued will not make a case a slam dunk. On the other hand, manufacturers do not gain any sort of legal immunity from a personal injury lawsuit simply because they voluntarily decided to issue a product safety recall.

What Will It Cost Me?

Much like the compensation involved, the cost varies on the circumstances of your case, including if the case settles or goes to trial. Every product injury case needs a comprehensive, individualized investigation in advance of the trial; this process, known as discovery, can be costly—as can the experts that are often required in trial. It is recommended that you consult with an experienced California product liability attorney right away.

“Attorneys who handle cases involving personal injuries, such as my firm, work on a contingency fee basis,” Meredith says. This means they only get paid if you win or settle. In that case, “It’s pretty standard that it ranges somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of the award.”

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