New regulations may limit product liability claims against auto manufacturers

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While rollover accidents account for only 3% of serious motor vehicle accidents, they account for 33% of all vehicle occupant deaths. Every year 10,000 Americans die in rollover motor vehicle accidents and another 24,000 are seriously injured.

The strength of the vehicle’s roof is a key factor in how well a vehicle’s occupants are protected in a rollover. Previously, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) performed “roof-crush” tests by pressing a plate down against the edge of the vehicle’s roof. Old standards required that the roof of the vehicle be able to withstand a force equal to 1-1/2 times the weight of the vehicle–up to a limit of 5,000 pounds–with the plate moving now more than five inches.

According to Consumer Reports, an updated standard issued in 2009 will be phased in with 2012 model year vehicles and will apply to all new vehicles by the 2017 model year. Under the revised standard, the roof of a vehicle weighing up to 6,000 pounds must now withstand three times the vehicle’s weight. For the first time, vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds must meet a roof crush standard, but that standard for the heaviest vehicles remains at 1-1/2 times the vehicle’s weight.

Although Consumer Reports applauds the new regulations as “a step in the right direction,” it believes that the roof crush standard should be four times the vehicle’s weight rather than just three and believes that same rigorous roof-strength standard should apply to ALL passenger vehicles, including the heaviest.

In addition, Consumer Reports criticized NHTSA’s new regulations because they may limit product liability claims against auto manufacturers. Under the new regulations, injured drivers and passengers will be unable to present product liability claims against vehicle manufacturers stating the manufacturer had a duty to make the vehicle roof stronger than the new standard requires, even where automakers had been held to a higher standard by state courts. Consumer Reports believes auto manufacturers will have less motivation to make vehicle roofs as strong as they are able to.

Consumer Reports states that petitions by safety advocacy groups asking that NHTSA not exempt vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds, were rejected by NHTSA.

Source: Consumer Reports, “Raising the roof standard for rollover safety,” April 2012.