Re-Inventing the Wheel: A Brief History of Failure to Warn Product Liability Cases & Cars

Product liability cases come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. Theories of liability vary. An interesting one is a failure to warn—whether negligently or by holding a corporation strictly liable. Although it applies to seemingly endless product types, one more than most plays a prominent part in the legal landscape in that regard: automobiles. Although our law firm doesn’t do many traditional “car crash” cases where Driver A sues Driver B for rear-ending them, we handle cases where people are injured because a defect in their own vehicle either caused the crash or contributed to the damages.

For a long time, personal injury cases involving products were viewed through the lens of contract. After all, the injured plaintiff was almost always a consumer who had purchased the defective product, so there was a sense of privity. The case of MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., 111 N.E. 1050 (N.Y. Ct. App. 1916) was an important case in the shift away from that notion. Then-Judge Benjamin Cardozo—one of America’s most famous jurists—wrote about how, “irrespective of contract, the manufacturer of this thing of danger is under a duty to make it carefully.” Mr. MacPherson was injured when the wooden steering wheel in his Buick collapsed while driving and filed suit over it. But even then-Judge Cardozo, who later became a Justice on the Supreme Court, had the benefit of some precedent discussing the duty “either to exercise due care to warn users of the danger or to take reasonable care to prevent the article sold from proving dangerous when subjected only to customary usage.”

In Florida, one of the earliest cases discussing negligent failure to warn in a product liability case was Ford Motor Company v. Evancho, 327 So. 2d 201 (Fla. 1976). That case involved a tire blowout that resulted in the death of a minor child. Florida’s First District Court of Appeal discussed prior Florida Supreme Court precedent in a death-by-inhalation of product fumes case to observe that “a strict duty to adequately warn the consumer of a product’s dangerous propensities when that product by its very nature, free of defect, is dangerous” was a “definition [that] remains viable.” However, the issue was whether the trial court properly instructed the jury about the failure to warn theory. The answer was no because “[l]ogically, an automobile tire cannot be said to be dangerous in and of itself in the same manner as dynamite or carbon tetrachloride [fumes].”

In Georgia, the case of Chrysler Corp. v. Batten, 450 S.E.2d 208 (Ga. 1994) is one of the hallmark product liability, failure to warn cases involving cars. That case involved a crash between two cars, but the issue on appeal hinged on allegations that Chrysler failed to warn about a defective and dangerous seat belt mechanism. The Batten case is full of a review of prior cases involving failure to warn law in Georgia.

The takeaway here is this: it’s not hard to find product liability failure to warn cases around the country, but a closer inspection reveals that automotive defects—whether steering wheels, tires, seatbelts, and more recently, airbags—are more prevalent in our courts than perhaps any other product type.