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When Are Manufacturers Liable for Car Accidents?


Most people associate car crashes with driver negligence. The majority of traffic accidents do involve a driver who is distracted or intoxicated. However, not all accidents are the driver’s fault. In some cases, the vehicle itself may have caused the accident due to a defect or manufacturing error. 

In these cases, the driver should not be held fully liable for the accident. The crash would not have occurred if the vehicle had been correctly and safely produced. California law allows manufacturers to be held responsible for incidents like these. Here’s what you need to know about how traffic accident liability is determined in California and when it may include the manufacturer.

Types of Liability in Car Crashes

In California, a defendant is found liable for losses if the plaintiff can demonstrate the following four elements:

  • The defendant had a duty of care toward the plaintiff
  • They breached that duty
  • The plaintiff suffered injuries
  • Those injuries were caused by the defendant’s breach of duty

In a car accident, there are two ways this may apply. The first is through negligence. Drivers owe a duty of care to other road users, including following traffic laws, paying attention to their surroundings, and not driving when intoxicated or otherwise unable to drive safely. If they breach that duty and hurt someone, they may be liable for the injuries they caused. 

California requires plaintiffs claiming negligence to prove a fifth element as well. The plaintiff must show that the defendant reasonably should have been aware that their actions may cause harm. However, as all California drivers are required to take driver’s education courses detailing these risks, this is one of the simplest elements to prove. 

Alternatively, the manufacturer may be strictly liable for harm caused by defective vehicles. In this case, the plaintiff does not need to prove that the manufacturer was aware of the defect. California’s strict liability laws only require the plaintiff to prove that they were harmed by a product made by the manufacturer and that cause of the harm was the manufacturer’s fault. This prevents companies from avoiding responsibility for mistakes by claiming they were not aware of the problem. 

Manufacturers’ Responsibilities to Make Safe Vehicles

There are three reasons a car manufacturer may be held liable for injuries caused by their products:

  • Manufacturing defects: A manufacturing flaw is a problem that occurs because the vehicle was not made correctly. For example, if airbags aren’t installed correctly, that is a manufacturing defect. Should the airbags go off unexpectedly because of the flaw, the maker is likely liable for injuries this causes.
  • Defective designs: A design defect is a fundamental problem. The car was built correctly according to the plans, but those plans missed safety features or put the driver or passengers at risk. For example, if a car’s doors automatically lock and cannot be unlocked from the inside if the battery fails, this may be a defective design because the passengers cannot escape in an emergency. 
  • Lack of necessary warnings or instructions: Companies must provide customers with clear instructions on how to use the vehicle safely and warnings about the unexpected dangers of misusing it. For instance, if a car model is known to overbalance easily on sharp turns and the manufacturer doesn’t warn buyers about this, it may be liable for injuries caused by rollovers.

In each of these situations, the manufacturer has breached its duty of care toward consumers. As the breach of duty is fundamentally related to the products it sells, the company is held to the strict liability standard. It is not necessary to prove that it was aware of the flaws to assign liability.

California Comparative Fault Laws

In some cases, more than one party is at fault for an accident. For instance, if someone blows a red light and your brakes fail when you try to stop, the other driver and your vehicle’s manufacturer may be partially responsible for the crash. In that case, California law assigns liability through the pure comparative fault standard. 

Comparative fault, also known as comparative negligence, allows liability to be divided among multiple parties. It is most often used to divide responsibility between the plaintiff and the defendant, but it also permits fault to be divided among multiple defendants. In the example above, the other driver may be considered 60% at fault for the accident because they violated traffic laws and did not stop at the light. However, the manufacturer may be 40% at fault because the faulty brakes failed, preventing you from stopping in time and avoiding the crash. 

This standard may give you a better chance of receiving full compensation in a personal injury case. If you only file a claim against the other driver, the damages you pursue may exceed their insurance coverage. If so, you are unlikely to receive the full sum necessary to cover your medical bills and other expenses.

However, if you include the manufacturer and it is found partially at fault, the damages will be divided between the driver and the company. This increases the likelihood that you will receive just compensation for your accident without battling with insurance or taking additional legal action. 

Hold Manufacturers Accountable for Defects That Cause Accidents

If your car crash was wholly or partially due to a manufacturing defect, design flaw, or lack of instructions and warnings, you should hold the manufacturer accountable. You were sold a defective product, and it harmed you. Under California law, you have the right to pursue a personal injury claim against the maker and pursue damages for the losses you’ve suffered. 

You can begin the process by scheduling your consultation with the expert car accident attorneys at the Ellis Helm, APC. Our experienced Temecula lawyers will help you understand your options and choose the best path forward for your claim. Reach out today to learn more about how we will fight for just compensation on your behalf.