Category Archives: Motor Vehicle Accidents

Tesla Model S Gets Federal Safety Probe After Fires

On the heels of three incidents in which Tesla Model S cars have caught fire after striking road debris, the federal government has announced that it is investigating a potential vehicle safety defect involving the popular electric car — specifically, the effect of “undercarriage strikes” on the vehicle’s battery compartment.

Here’s what the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation had to say in announcing the Tesla probe:

    The ODI is aware of two incidents occurring on US public highways in which the subject vehicles caught fire after an undercarriage strike with metallic roadway debris. The resulting impact damage to the propulsion battery tray (baseplate) initiated thermal runaway. In each incident, the vehicle’s battery monitoring system provided escalating visible and audible warnings, allowing the driver to execute a controlled stop and exit the vehicle before the battery emitted smoke and fire.
    Based on these incidents, NHTSA is opening this preliminary evaluation to examine the potential risks associated with undercarriage strikes on model year 2013 Tesla Model S vehicles.

According to the Washington Post, it’s not clear whether Tesla CEO Elon Musk asked the NHTSA to look into the issue — Musk claims he did, but the head of the agency said he was “not aware” of any such request.

In any case, Musk isn’t thrilled with the picture that the media is painting when it comes to the Model S and its propensity to catch fire, and he may have a fair point.

In a blog post on the Tesla website, Musk makes the argument that three incidents of fire involving the Model S does not add up to a safety problem, especially when you put that incident rate side-by-side with the one for gasoline-powered cars. Here is the numbers breakdown from Musk:

    There are now substantially more than the 19,000 Model S vehicles on the road, for an average of one fire per at least 6,333 cars, compared to the rate for gasoline vehicles of one fire per 1,350 cars. By this metric, you are more than four and a half times more likely to experience a fire in a gasoline car than a Model S! Considering the odds in the absolute, you are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than experience even a non-injurious fire in a Tesla.

Sending a Text to a Driver: R U Liable?

You send a text message to your buddy who is on a cross-country road trip, or to your spouse who is in the middle of a daily freeway commute. While busy reading your message, your buddy hits a pedestrian, or your spouse rear-ends another vehicle. Next thing you know, you’re slapped with a personal injury lawsuit. Sound crazy? Maybe not, if a recent New Jersey court decision has anything to say about it.

Here’s what the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division held in their opinion in Linda Kubert, et al. vs. Kyle Best, et al., (which was filed on August 27):

    “The sender of a text message has a duty under the common law of negligence to refrain from sending a text to a person who the sender knows, or has special reason to know, is then driving and is likely to read the text while driving.”

The court didn’t extend liability to the specific case before it, finding insufficient evidence that the sender of the text breached any such duty under the circumstances. But they made clear that the potential for this kind of liability exists in New Jersey.

Let’s break this down a little bit: When it comes to civil tort liability — which means being on the legal hook for any harm or damages caused by something you did or didn’t do — the first thing the injured person must show is that you owed them some kind of legal duty of care. If you have no such duty, you’re not liable for any resulting injuries. It’s that simple.

So, what the New Jersey appellate court is doing here is opening the door for tort liability to extend to the sender of a text message, saying that if they know or have “special reason” to know that they’re sending a text to someone who is driving, they owe a legal duty — an obligation to anyone who may be injured by the driver’s inattention in the seconds spent reading the message — not to hit “Send.”

Is this a bit of a legal stretch? Aren’t drivers solely responsible for what they do and don’t do behind the wheel? Is “Bloombergian” a word? These are all good questions. Every state has laws prohibiting “distracted driving” in general, and most states have passed laws that specifically forbid using a handheld device to send and read text messages while driving.  If a driver is found to have violated these traffic laws in connection with a car accident, that’s a pretty clear-cut case of liability for any harm caused to other drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and so on. And the driver’s legal duty extends to keeping their hands off a phone while driving, regardless of who may or may not be texting, and devoting their total attention to what’s happening on the road.

Some might say that’s as far as the law should go, and they might wonder where it all ends. What about texting a surgeon while they are on call? Or a professional pilot? How about your rodeo clown buddy who stops to read your knock-knock joke while the cowboy gets a longhorn in his backside? That all may seem farfetched, but before you text your driving pals in the Garden State, know that you may be heading down a costly road.

Total Recall Information Available to Vehicle Owners Under New Federal Rule

Wondering whether your car has been the subject of any manufacturer recalls? What about the defect history of that gently-used SUV you’re thinking about buying? It hasn’t been all that easy to track down critical information like this, but that could all change thanks to a new federal requirement announced by the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA).

By this time next year, you’ll be able to enter your vehicle identification number (VIN) into an online auto manufacturer database, and get detailed information on any recall affecting your car, light truck, or motorcycle. According to the NHTSA, manufacturers will be required to update the databases at least weekly, and a related search feature will also be available on the federal government’s official automotive safety website www.safercar.gov.

“Currently, consumers are limited to general searches by vehicle make and model year on the NHTSA website. With the new VIN search feature, consumers will be able to tell whether a specific vehicle is subject to a recall and whether the vehicle has received the remedy,” the NHTSA said in its press release announcing the new rule.

What are your legal options if your vehicle is recalled, or if you’re in a car accident where a vehicle defect may have played a part? Learn more in our Nolo articles Safety Recalls for Cars and Motorcycles and Product Liability Claims Involving Defective Cars.

How Safe is Your Small Car?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is at it again, totaling brand new cars in the interest of keeping consumers informed, and keeping carmakers’ feet to the fire when it comes to vehicle safety.

The latest round of IIHS testing ran a dozen 2013 model year “small cars” through the “small overlap” crash scenario, where the front of a vehicle strikes a five-foot tall barrier that is offset on the driver’s side. The vehicles are traveling 40 miles-per-hour at the time of impact, and a “dummy” (the IIHS’s word, not ours) is belted into the driver’s seat.

Vehicles were rated based on a number of factors, including structural integrity, restraint system performance, and ability to prevent or minimize car accident injuries.

You can check out the full results of the IIHS small overlap crash test here. But it looks like Honda owners can rest a little easier at night, as two- and four-door model Civics were the only cars to earn the top rating of “good.” But there may be some tossing and turning for owners of the Nissan Sentra, Kia Soul, and Kia Forte, all of which earned an overall rating of “poor.”

So, why judge cars based on how they perform in a “small overlap” crash test? IIHS explains in a press release announcing the results: “In many vehicles the impact at a 25 percent overlap misses the primary structures designed to manage crash energy. That increases the risk of severe damage to or collapse of the occupant compartment structure. Also, vehicles tend to rotate and slide sideways during this type of collision, and that can move the driver’s head outboard, away from the protection of the front airbag. If the dummy misses the airbag or slides off of it, the head and chest are unprotected.”

For everything you ever wanted to know about making a claim for vehicle damage or injury after a car accident, check out Nolo’s new website all-about-car-accidents.com.

Some Asiana Crash Injuries Linked to Seat Belts

Investigators continue to piece together the cause of the accident involving Asiana Airlines Flight 214, which crashed just short of a bay-adjacent runway at San Francisco International Airport on July 6th. In addition to two fatalities, there were over 150 passenger and crewmember injuries linked to the crash, and a pattern seems to be emerging when it comes to the cause of some of those injuries.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “[w]hen passengers began streaming into emergency rooms, hospital staffers said they saw many injuries associated with using seat belts that fasten around the lap,” the kinds of in-seat restraints that are used by the vast majority of airlines in all seating areas of their passenger aircraft.

WSJ notes that the design of these restraints — notably the absence of any chest or shoulder harness — is a practical one: “Seats where lap belts are used are now designed so that in a crash, passengers are cushioned by the seats in front of them. The seat back is designed to fall forward, absorbing the blow. [Installation of chest harnesses] would add to seats’ weight and require a heavier mounting system and floor frame, experts said.”

Over at CNBC, they’re opining that the absence of a safer seat belt system on planes comes down to questions of cost and comfort.

Learn more about injuries caused by seat belts and legal issues in airplane accident cases.

Chrysler Recalls 2.7 Million Jeep Vehicles Over Fire Risk

Chrysler is recalling more than 2.7 million Jeep vehicles over the risk that rear-end collisions could cause the vehicles to catch fire, due to a potentially defective gas tank design.

Over the past few weeks Chrysler has been involved in a lot of back-and-forth with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which requested that the automaker issue a voluntary recall over the problem.

Car companies tend to go along with these kinds of NHTSA requests without putting up much of a fight, but Chrysler had refused to issue any recall until it was up against an NHTSA-imposed deadline for compliance with the request. (See NHTSA resources on the Chrysler recall.)

The recall involves the following Jeep sport utility vehicle models:

  • Jeep Grand Cherokee for model year 1993 to 2004, and
  • Jeep Liberty for model year 2002 to 2007.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Chrysler’s strategy may end up paying off when it comes to the alleged vehicle defect: “By choosing to blink in a high-stakes game of chicken, Chrysler may in fact come out the big winner. That’s because the proposed repair — installing low-cost trailer hitches — could prove far less expensive than other potential remedies.”

For Jeep owners with questions about how the recall affects them, hopefully this MSNBC article has the answers: What Worried Owners Can Do About Jeep Recall. And if you’re interested, learn about your legal options for vehicle defects.

Airbag Recall Affects 3.3M Vehicles

Some overly-enthusiastic passenger-side airbags are to blame for a worldwide recall that is affecting more than 3.3 million Honda, Mazda, Nissan, and Toyota vehicles worldwide.

The problem is that the airbags may deploy with too much force, resulting in metal shards showering the passenger cabin of the vehicle, which could make a bad situation worse for people who are involved in a car accident.

For Honda, this week’s airbag recall joins a list of others dating back to 2008, although prior problems involved driver’s side airbags deploying with too much force.

The airbags were manufactured by Japan’s Takata Corporation, according to the New York Times, and some of the affected airbags were also sold to BMW and General Motors, so we likely haven’t heard the last word on vehicles that have been affected by this problem.

For details on affected vehicles (all of which were model year 2000 to 2004 as of now) and instructions for vehicle owners, check out this L.A. Times article and the press releases linked up here: Honda | Toyota.

Learn more about vehicle recalls and defects.

New Year, New Teen Driving Laws

A flurry of new driving and licensing laws may be triggering an epidemic of eye-rolling among teen drivers in several states. But lawmakers in New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere have passed these laws to prevent car accidents and address some of the safety concerns that come along with putting brand-new drivers on the road. Here are a few highlights of some of the new teen driving laws:

New Jersey. A bill recently passed by state lawmakers would require teen drivers in New Jersey to log up to an additional year of driving with their learner’s permit before they can be fully licensed. This law has been passed by lawmakers in New Jersey, so stay tuned on when it takes effect. More from CBS NY.

North Carolina. Teen drivers with learner’s permits will need to jump through a few more procedural hoops in North Carolina’s graduated licensing system for young drivers. This law took effect as of the first of this year. Learn more from the North Carolina DOT.

Pennsylvania. A new set of laws puts restrictions on drivers who are under 18, including limitations on the number of passengers who may ride with the driver, if those passengers are also under 18. Other new Pennsylvania laws on teen driving make the failure to wear a seatbelt a “primary offense” for drivers and passengers under 18 (meaning they can get pulled over for it), and bump up the number of supervised driving hours required for new drivers. These laws went into effect close to the end of 2011. More here.

These are just a few of the newest state laws that target teen drivers. For a state-by-state look at similar laws, check out Young Driver Licensing Systems in the U.S., from the IIHS.

For a unique view on the impact of teen driving laws like these, read this blog plost from the New York Times website: Teenage Driving Laws May Just Delay Deadly Crashes.

Hands Off Those Cell Phones at Red Lights in California

The problem of distracted driving has the attention of lawmakers in every state these days. California laws on driver use of cell phones and other devices are already some of the toughest in the country. And now you can add to that set of rules yesterday’s decision from a California appeals court: Next time you grab your cell phone to make a quick call or send a brief text message while you’re waiting out a red light, you can still get ticketed for a $103 traffic violation, even though your vehicle isn’t moving. The three-judge appellate panel in yesterday’s decision held that a driver who is stopped at a red light is still “driving” under California’s Vehicle Code — specifically, the driver is merely “pausing momentarily” at the light, in compliance with the rules of the road. So, use of a hand-held device while stopped at a red light is still a violation of California’s distracted driving laws.    

Read a PDF of yesterday’s decision: People v. Nelson, from the California Courts website.  

With iPhones and Blackberries becoming more and more pervasive — and drivers increasingly unwilling to go unplugged even on a trip to the dry cleaners — distracted driving has become a leading cause of car accidents. In 2009, 20 percent of all injury-causing car accidents involved distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). And a driver who is using a hand-held device is four times as likely to get into a serious-injury car accident, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). This is all on top of numerous studies showing that drivers who use a cell phone while driving (even those who go hands-free) have their reaction time and judgment impaired to the same level as a driver who is legally intoxicated.

Learn more about Car Accidents Caused by Cell Phone Use from Nolo. And visit Distraction.gov, the federal government’s new web portal on distracted driving.

Is Your Kid’s Car Booster Seat a Good Fit?

Parents who are shopping for the right car booster seat for their kids have better (and safer) options to choose from than ever before, according to testing and new ratings issued by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

When it comes to car booster seat safety, finding the right fit is the name of the game. And after its most recent comprehensive study of 62 booster seat models, IIHS has named a record 31 seats as “Best Bets.” According to the group’s press release on the study, a booster seat qualifies as a “Best Bet” when it “correctly positions a vehicle safety belt on a typical 4 to 8 year-old in almost any car, minivan, or SUV.”

Since a vehicle’s seatbelts are designed for adults, a booster seat is needed to elevate the child into a position where the belt can properly restrain the child in case a car accident happens or a sudden stop is necessary. IIHS advises parents to make sure that the lap belt lies flat across a child’s upper legs, and that the shoulder belt comes down over the middle of the shoulder — not up close to the child’s neck, and not down closer to the upper arm.

Read the IIHS press release on the study, and check out the complete ratings.

The IIHS website has a lot of useful information on child passenger safety, including this Q&A.