Crashworthiness Doctrine Under Assault in Florida Legislature

I am a member of the Florida Justice Association (FJA), a Tallahassee-based organization dedicated to strengthening and upholding Florida’s civil justice system and protecting the rights of Florida’s citizens and consumers. Within the organization is an Internet discussion group, of which I have been a member for more than ten years, consisting of a sub-group of lawyers who only represent Plaintiffs/Claimants. In other words, no defense attorneys are allowed access to this discussion group. The group discusses legal issues concerning the rights of individuals within the context of the civil justice system. It is an invaluable resource.

Many of my blogs discuss the dangers facing Florida’s civil justice system. Among the specific topics discussed regarding the larger issue deal with what is referred to in Florida as the crashworthiness or enhanced injury doctrine. (Blogs 1, 2, and 3.) I have warned that this important consumer safety law was in danger of being eliminated by Rick Scott and Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature. Well, in just day two of the Rick Scott administration, the doctrine is under assault and, given the Republican numbers, likely to be killed.

Given the importance of the doctrine to the safety and well-being of people in Florida, this assault on the doctrine is a hot topic of discussion on the FJA’s Internet discussion board. I found one post particularly enlightening and have decided to post it here (slightly edited). The author is Florida Attorney Rich Newsome.

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This coming Tuesday afternoon, the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Anitere Flores, will take up an anti-consumer bill involving automobile safety. This bill is being spearheaded by Ford Motor Company and if passed, will have huge consequences for consumers who are maimed and killed by defective cars. (Blogger’s note: In 2009, Ms. Flores introduced and shepherded workers’ compensation legislation that has resulted in the drastic curtailment of the ability of injured workers to obtain benefits. The legislation is in the process of being appealed as unconstitutional to the Florida Supreme Court.)

A little background… “crashworthiness” is the idea that a car company has a duty to make a car that will give reasonable protection for consumers who are involved in a car crash. This is basic stuff, right? Cars should have seat belts that work, airbags that perform as designed, gas tanks that don’t explode in minor crashes, etc…

However, cars are NOT always crashworthy. Consumer attorneys for years have brought cases against car manufacturers for failing to make their cars crashworthy resulting in families being killed, burned or crippled. This is well documented and has happened thousands and thousands of times.

A good example that goes back more than 30 years is the Ford Pinto. Ford made the Pinto with a poorly designed gas tank that would explode into flames if it was tapped in the rear by another vehicle at low speed. GM had a similar gas tank issue with certain pick up trucks. Some of the most famous ‘smoking gun’ corporate documents came to the public’s attention as a result of this litigation. These documents showed manufacturers have allowed bean counters to engage in decisions about whether to recall a known safety problem by looking at whether it would be cheaper to do the recall or just settle any lawsuits that are brought as a result of the problem. (Remember the movie Fight Club? Ed Norman played the lead role in that movie, and it was his character’s job to do this kind of dirty work for some un-named car company. We don’t like to think about it but we know it happens.)

There are legions of other types of well documented examples of cases where manufacturers have made defective cars that were not crashworthy: exploding Crown Victoria gas tanks, roof crush cases, seat belt failures, airbag failures, etc… Most of the times when consumers bring claims against car companies over these issues, the injuries are either fatal or catastrophic.

The bill being taken up for a vote this coming Tuesday afternoon will dramatically change the playing field for consumers in these kinds of cases. Several years ago in the D’Amario v. Ford decision, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that in a crashworthiness case, the jury must decide whether the car company is at fault without regard to the cause of the accident itself. Ford and other auto makers didn’t like this decision because they wanted to muddy the issue of crashworthiness for juries by asking them to also consider the fault of the person who caused the crash. For example, in the Pinto case, Ford would like to have the jury consider the fault of the driver who bumped into the Pinto and argue that they should be let off the hook because it’s the other driver’s fault, not theirs. The Court in D’Amario ruled that this was logically inconsistent because, in essence, the fault of the driver that bumped into the Pinto was a separate issue from Ford’s duty to make a gas tank that won’t explode in a fender bender.

The net effect? Car companies will get off the hook in cases like those involving defective seatbelts, faulty airbags, etc. Florida families and the State itself will get stuck with paying for the medical bills and future care of those who have sustained enhanced injuries. Out of state and foreign car companies will escape financial responsibility. And without financial motivation to make safe cars, cars will be more dangerous. And Florida families will suffer the consequences.

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Jeffrey P. Gale, P.A. is a South Florida based law firm committed to the judicial system and to representing and obtaining justice for individuals – the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned, and to protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression. We do not represent government, corporations or large business interests.

Contact us at 866-785-GALE or by email to learn your legal rights.