The automobile industry has faced a number of lawsuits over the years concerning the safety of vehicles on the road. But the recent verdict against Mitsubishi Motors takes the discussion on vehicle defects to new heights. A staggering $977 million was awarded to a couple following a harrowing incident that turned their lives upside down.
Let’s take a look at the details of the case and the broader implications for automotive product liability lawsuits.
The verdict that sent shockwaves across the automotive industry
The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas handed down a nearly one-billion-dollar verdict against Mitsubishi Motors on October 30, 2023. The judgment favored Francis Amagasu, who became a quadriplegic following a vehicle rollover.
Amagasu’s injuries stemmed from a 2017 accident when, while wearing his seatbelt, he lost control of his 1992 Mitsubishi 3000GT as he tried to avoid another vehicle.
According to the lawsuit, the seatbelt’s design was defective because it allowed the release of four inches of slack during the collision, causing Francis to strike his head on the car roof. The jury further found that Mitsubishi was negligent for failing to conduct adequate rollover testing.
The $977 million award included $176,551,384 in compensatory damages and $800 million in punitive damages.
Mitsubishi, facing one of the largest personal injury verdicts in recent history, has expressed its disappointment and intentions to appeal the decision.
"Mitsubishi Motors vehicles are and have been among the safest on the road, having won multiple safety awards to attest to that fact," said Mitsubishi Motors North America in a statement.
Of course, prior safety awards have little bearing on the issue at hand: whether or not the seatbelt was defective and whether or not Mitsubishi was negligent in failing to conduct adequate rollover testing.
Understanding automobile product defect lawsuits
An automobile product defect lawsuit alleges that a vehicle or one of its components was defective. The law recognizes three types of defects that can lead to an automobile product liability claim:
|Manufacturing defect||A defectively manufactured product is one that—though properly designed—left the manufacturer in a condition other than intended.||A car model, designed with top-tier safety features, was sold with a batch of improperly fitted brake pads due to a factory error. As a result, the brake system failed to engage properly, leading to a high-speed collision.|
|Design defect||A product is defectively designed if it failed to perform as safely as a reasonable person would expect, even when used as intended (or at least in a manner that was reasonably foreseeable)||An SUV was designed with a high center of gravity, making it susceptible to rolling over when making sharp turns at speed, even though it was used in the expected manner, resulting in multiple rollover accidents.|
|Failure to warn||Manufacturers have a duty to warn users of the dangers that can be reasonably anticipated and that are inherent in their products.||A sports car came equipped with a special traction control system that, when disabled, significantly increased the risk of skidding during abrupt maneuvers. The manufacturer did not provide adequate warnings regarding the heightened risk when the system was turned off, leading to a series of preventable crashes.|
In most cases, product liability claims are based on negligence or strict liability:
In a product liability case based on negligence, the plaintiff must prove the following elements:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care (manufacturers owe a duty of care to all potential users),
- The defendant breached the duty of care, and
- The defendant's breach caused the plaintiff's injuries.
In a product liability case based on strict liability, the plaintiff must prove the following elements:
- The product was sold in an "unreasonably dangerous" condition,
- The unreasonably dangerous condition existed when the product left the defendant's control, and
- The dangerous condition caused the plaintiff's injuries.
Attorneys conduct discovery to obtain as much evidence as possible to support an automobile product defect lawsuit. This evidence might include:
- The flawed product or a comparable model if the original is not accessible,
- Guidelines and protocols used in product manufacturing,
- Recorded video material from the production facility,
- Pertinent correspondence within the company, including design-related discussions that may highlight design flaws,
- Reports documenting the incident in question,
- Health care documentation related to the incident, or
- Statements from individuals involved in the design and production of the product, who can provide insight into the defect.
Legal recourse for victims of defective automobiles
For victims like Francis Amagasu, the legal battle for compensation involves proving the existence of a defect and detailing the full scope of their injuries.
In terms of compensation, states typically permit the recovery of several types of damages:
- Economic Damages: These cover financial losses directly stemming from the accident, which include medical bills, lost earnings, and other quantifiable expenses.
- Non-Economic Damages: These address the indirect consequences of an accident, encompassing pain, emotional anguish, and loss of relationship quality or consortium.
- Punitive Damages: Designed to serve as a deterrent, these damages are punitive in nature, aiming to reprimand the defendant and prevent similar future offenses.
One critical aspect victims must be aware of is the time frame within which they must initiate legal action, known as the statute of limitations. This period varies by state and can decisively affect the viability of a claim. Missing the deadline to file a claim can irreversibly forfeit your right to seek redress.