This is the fourth (final) part of our series involving vicarious liability. This legal concept potentially makes a vehicle owner liable for the negligent actions of another party, despite not being directly involved. We first looked at when a parent is liable for injuries caused by their child while driving, which involves the Family Car Doctrine. Next, we looked at employer liability for the negligence of their employees (respondeat superior) when operating in the scope of their employment. Lastly, we analyzed the potential liability for rental car agencies when a vehicle they own is rented or leased to a party whose negligence caused harm, which involved the Graves Amendment. In this segment, we will look at how a party may be vicariously liable for damages in a vehicle accident that are determined to be caused by a vehicle defect creating a product liability claim.
Most vehicle accidents are attributed to some human failure that demonstrates negligence such as distracted driving, excessive speed, impairment etc. In some cases, the accidents may have resulted from a product defect beyond the driver's control. Generally, a vehicle product liability case will require assistance from a professional(s) trained to assess the evidence in order to prevail. In these instances, it is important to also retain experienced legal counsel who is capable of effectively pursuing such a claim. Examples of a product defect may include a vehicle rollover, fire, tire blowout, computer failure, or unintended acceleration.
Product Liability Overview
Colorado's product liability statute governs actions against a product manufacturer or seller. Manufacturers are defined as those who create, design, or produce consumer products. Sellers also may be potentially liable and are defined as a person or entity that distributes, retails, or assembles products for resale or usage. Here are the applicable liability theories:
- Manufacturer defect: Product was defectively manufactured (flawed), which requires proving that the defect existed prior to sale.
- Design defect: An error occurred in product development which may have been anticipated that created an unreasonable hazard.e.g., such as through warning labels. No liability generally exists when the product is used for an improper purpose or in an unforeseeable way.
- Failure to warn: A claim based on a failure to properly warn consumers of known dangers, e.g., use of warning labels. No liability generally exists when the product is used for an improper purpose or in an unforeseeable way.
- Strict liability: This is a concept of bringing a claim that is not centered on a specific act or omission that the defendant conducted; rather, the product was defective in nature and was unreasonably hazardous and caused injuries.
Component or Subcomponent Defects
Claims may stem from a defective component (part) of the finished product that made it hazardous. An example would be in the industry of manufacturing automobiles, where there are components, systems, and materials that are sourced from multiple suppliers. If the vehicle's flaw can be traced to a specific component then a claim may name both the component provider and the manufacturer as defendants. Similar to respondeat superior, the manufacturer may be considered vicariously liable for a defect within its external supply chain.
Common Product Liability Defenses
- Innocent Seller: No actions of product liability can be brought against a party unless the seller is also the manufacturer of the product or component that caused the damages. If jurisdiction is unobtainable for a manufacturer, the principal seller or distributor where jurisdiction is obtainable would be the named defendant.
- Product Misuse: No product liability action will proceed if the consumer was using the product for an unintended purpose that was not foreseeable, leading to injuries.
- Presumptions: It is assumed that a manufacturer or seller was not negligent if the product was deemed state of the art based on certifiable industry standards or in compliance with codes, standards, or guidelines of an agency within the state or federal government. Likewise, specific non-compliance with the codes, standards, or guidelines of an agency within the state or federal government creates an assumption of negligence. Products that were sold ten years prior are presumed to not be defective.
- Comparative Fault: The fault (negligence) that the plaintiff demonstrated as well as the fault of the other parties will be assessed by the jury and any awards for damages are assigned or reduced proportionally.
Vicarious liability is often a way for injured parties of car accidents to recover compensation that is fairer and just than by seeking compensation directly from the actual driver. It is also important to remember that vicarious liability may play a role in many other personal bodily injuries situations, too. It is always important to consult a personal injury lawyer to make sure you are seeking compensation from all potential defendants.