Driven to Safety: How Litigation Spurred Auto Safety Innovations

Up until the 1960s, car manufacturers were only held liable for defects in construction that resulted in accidents and had largely avoided responsibility for defects in design. Even when a design defect caused a car to burst into flames, manufacturers succeeded in persuading courts that “no duty exists to make an automobile fireproof.”

Manufacturers had a large body of knowledge proving that car design – particularly in regard to steering columns, dashboards, windshields and passenger restraints – was extremely unsafe to car occupants, but did nothing about it. Style was valued over safety. The cost of largely unnecessary styling changes amounted to, at the time, $700 per car, yet the average safety expenditure amounted to just 23 cents. For instance, many manufacturers used chrome enamel dashboards for their aesthetic value, despite evidence that the dashboards commonly refl ected sunlight into drivers’ eyes and blinded them.

In the 1960s, court cases began highlighting the dangers of car design and the willful negligence of manufacturers in designing cars that they knew to be unsafe. Since then the civil justice system has worked hand-in-hand with regulation to protect Americans, while spurring generations of safety innovations.  Litigation will ultimately play a key role in identifying what went wrong with Toyota. These findings will aid regulators and legislators in protecting the American public in the future. By holding manufacturers accountable, the civil justice system will continue to spur safety innovations, as it has done for half a century.