Product Liability Litigation Benefits All Of Society

by John P. Scanlon

Lawyers representing injured clients affect important changes in many areas which benefit all of society. Product liability lawsuits encourage corporations to act in a responsible manner. Without this important check, some corporations would make safety decisions based solely on the bottom line.

Products such as flammable children's pajamas, Ford Pintos which exploded on low-speed impact and dangerous pharmaceuticals have all been significantly improved by consumer lawsuits. Unfortunately, there are still many dangerous consumer products on the market. Despite this, the White House is quietly trying to eliminate consumer lawsuits in product liability cases.

FDA AND DANGEROUS DRUGS

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority over whether or not a pharmaceutical drug can be released for use by consumers. In order to get FDA approval, drug manufacturers have to submit applications for drug approval.

The Administration has tried to severely limit consumer's rights through FDA policy and at the same time protect the drug companies. One policy change that the FDA has attempted to put into effect would prevent consumers from suing drug companies if the FDA had approved a drug's use in the market place, no matter how dangerous the drug.

The dangers of Vioxx is a great example of why there should always be a right to sue. How much pre-application testing was done? What did Merck submit to the FDA? When did they become aware of the danger of the drug? When a drug seriously injures or kills a user, the manufacturer should be responsible under the law. Consumer lawsuits determine responsibility.

NHTSA AND VEHICLE DEFECTS

Another area where the Administration is trying to eliminate consumer lawsuits is in the area of vehicle defects.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has responsibility for vehicle safety, and is proposing to eliminate consumer lawsuits if the manufacturer complies with NHTSA standards. The standards are absolute minimum standards and some standards have not been changed for over thirty years. Has engineering progress demonstrated that the standards are inadequate? Was the manufacturer aware that it was putting an unreasonably dangerous product on the road? Consumer lawsuits determine where the responsibility should be.

FUEL PUMP FAILURES

A recent case handled by our firm shows the benefits of consumer lawsuits in exposing dangerous, unsafe products. On April 18, 1999, a mother and father and three young children were traveling northbound on Interstate 294 when their 1995 Chrysler minivan stalled unexpectedly after passing through a tollbooth. As a result, the minivan was struck by another vehicle using the I-Pass lane causing the death of a two-year-old child and the partial paralysis of her mother.

Following several years of laboratory testing and the extensive review of thousands of internal corporate documents, it was learned that the fuel pumps installed in '91 - '95 Chrysler minivans had a rate of failure several times greater than what is acceptable in the auto industry. The pump defects, caused by design and manufacturing problems resulted in the fuel pumps stopping suddenly after running for less than a 1/3 of their required life. Here, the fuel pump failed without warning when the minivan had been used for less than 27,000 miles. When the fuel pump fails, the vehicle stops suddenly, often in very dangerous situations.

The fuel pumps installed in these Chrysler minivans were manufactured by Walbro Corporation.

Following several key hearings on these documents, the judge presiding over this case made specific findings requiring that certain documents be disclosed to the Plaintiffs. Corporate documents showed that there had been several prior investigations by the pump manufacturer into this high failure rate and the defect that caused these failures.

Just before the case was to be tried, an offer was made by Walbro and Chrysler that ultimately led to a record recovery for this type of injury. Walbro and Chrysler offered $20 million in addition to the $728,000 paid by the rear-ending vehicle for a total of $20,728,000.00.

These pumps were installed in '91 to '95 Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans. A similar pump was used in these vans from '96 to '99 and in the Dodge Neon from '95 to 2000.

It is product liability cases, like this one with substantial payments, that significantly impact future decisions by manufacturers about product safety. These cases certainly discourage the production of unreasonably dangerous products.