Product Liability

Florida bill lets automakers off hook, burdens taxpayers

Last month, the Florida State Senate approved a bill that makes it much more difficult for people harmed by automotive defects to hold carmakers responsible for their injuries. The legislation, which the St. Petersburg Times considers to be the latest attack in the “interminable war” waged by Republican legislators against trial lawyers, will actually hurt Floridians by removing liability for car crash victims from carmakers and placing it on the shoulders of Florida taxpayers.

The Crashworthiness Doctrine mandates that because vehicular crashes are inevitable, automakers must be held to a duty to keep the safety of crash victims in mind when designing and building vehicles.

In the 2002 Florida Supreme Court decision D’Amario vs. Ford Motor Co., automakers must be held responsible for any enhanced injuries or deaths in a car crash that are the result of the faulty design or manufacturing defects in the vehicle.

“If there’s a collision and an airbag fails, or the car’s design results in a gas tank explosion — as in the most famous example, the Ford Pinto — the car company is liable regardless of how the crash occurred,” the Times says. “Negligent drivers are still held responsible for the injuries they cause, just not for the added harms caused by the faulty vehicle — such as the burns caused by a Pinto’s exploding gas tank.”

But the current bill, SB 142, sponsored by Garrett Richter, a Republican senator from Naples, reverses the D’Amario ruling by allowing juries to apportion blame for car crash injuries caused by car defects to the drivers involved. While this change does not implicitly dismiss car manufacturers from being blamed, that is often how it plays out in court.

“Juries are understandably more likely to blame a drunken or negligent driver for crashes and the resultant injuries,” than makers of a defective car or components, the Times says. So while the driver who reaches for his cell phone ends up crashing into a tree, he becomes liable for his injuries in the mind of the jurors, even though his seatbelt may have failed to restrain him or his airbag failed to deploy.

Another drawback of the new bill is the incentive it takes away from auto makers to improve their products. According to the Times, “One goal of product liability law is to encourage auto manufacturers to take seriously their duty to build safe vehicles and to not cut corners. Richter’s measure is a significant step backward.”

“Florida taxpayers will inevitably end up shouldering the medical care costs and other financial burdens that automakers escape. Even if the change does whack the Democratic-leaning trial bar, Republican lawmakers in the House should acknowledge that it’s not a good deal for Floridians and refuse to go along.”