Too often, news reports inform us of major auto accidents in which an occupant of a vehicle is killed or seriously injured during the collision or as a result of being ejected from the vehicle during the crash sequence. These car accidents may involve rear end collisions, head-on collisions, “T-bone” accidents, rollovers or single car accidents.

Many times, those injured or their families bring claims against the driver who was responsible for causing the accident. What is not often investigated, however, is whether the vehicle’s safety or occupant protection systems performed properly during the crash. The mere fact that a vehicle is involved in a major accident does not mean that injuries to a driver or passenger are unavoidable. A defect in a vehicle’s occupant protection system can turn a relatively uneventful accident into a catastrophic one.

Although not visible to the naked eye, many vehicles on the road today have defects in their occupant protection systems, whether it be the airbags, seat belts, roof or other components. These defects can result from, among other things:

  1. an auto manufacturer failing to design a component to withstand foreseeable forces in a collision;
  2. an auto manufacturer failing to incorporate available safety technology into the design of the vehicle; or 
  3. an auto manufacturer failing to ensure that the vehicle’s safety systems prevent an occupant from being ejected in a car accident or crash event.

These defects most likely will never affect the performance of the car on a daily basis. When, however, these defects are “exposed” in a collision or crash event, occupants are often left with life-altering injuries, such as paraplegia, quadriplegia, traumatic brain injuries or the loss of a limb.

Product liability lawsuits involving motor vehicles examine and investigate whether latent defects in a vehicle caused or contributed to an occupant’s injuries. These cases are usually referred to as “crashworthiness” cases. Crashworthiness cases require an investigation of:

  1. the performance of vehicle components during a crash;
  2. the auto manufacturer’s design of the vehicle; and 
  3. whether or not technology or other designs were available that would have prevented the injuries an occupant sustained.

Often, the defective nature of a vehicle’s safety system is demonstrated by examining designs and safety features that other auto manufacturers were using and employing in their vehicles at the time the subject vehicle was designed or manufactured. In addition to defects in a vehicle’s safety systems, crashworthiness cases can also arise from the failure of an adequately designed safety system to properly perform during a car accident, such as the non-deployment of a frontal airbag in a head-on collision.

A crashworthiness lawsuit can arise from a host of long recognized defects in automobiles such as:

  • non-deployment or inappropriate deployment of airbags;
  • rollovers and resulting passenger ejections;
  • tire tread separation;
  • weak roofs;
  • inadequately designed child safety seats;
  • unlatching of doors;
  • post-collision fires caused by inadequately guarded fuel systems;
  • seat belt buckle release or failure; and – collapse of front seats in rear impacts due to inadequate strength and design.

One issue that arises in most vehicle crashworthiness cases are the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Many automakers market their vehicles by advertising the “safety ratings” that the vehicle has received from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) and other agencies or groups. Consumers should be aware that these “safety ratings” are not necessarily an indication of how safely a particular vehicle will perform in an accident or how well the vehicle will protect its occupants during a car accident.

For many years, automakers have lobbied the federal government and been successful in keeping the federal safety standards to minimal levels. As a result, these federal auto safety standards (which are issued by NHTSA) are generally not nearly adequate enough to ensure the safety of an occupant in a crash. For example, the industry strength requirement for an office chair exceeds the federal strength requirement for a motor vehicle seat. Despite NHTSA’s recent efforts to increase federal safety standards relating to roof strength in rollovers, most other standards continue to lag behind the safety technology and features available to auto manufacturers.

SUGARMAN has a long history of pursuing and litigating crashworthiness and motor vehicle product liability claims on behalf of people who have been catastrophically injured or killed in motor vehicle accidents. People who have sustained severe injuries in a motor vehicle accident or have family members who have sustained such injuries would be well advised to consult with an experienced product liability attorney to determine whether a crashworthiness case is a viable avenue to recover for the injuries sustained.

If you or a family member have any questions regarding a potential crashworthiness case, our partners are happy to consult with you.

Call us at 617-542-1000 or email