General Motors (GM) has recalled more than 6 million cars for ignition-switch defects as of June 2014. The ignition-switch defect in the recalled vehicles reportedly causes the electrical system to shut off when the ignition key is jostled, which may result in a disabling of the vehicle’s power-steering, power brakes, and airbags. The problem can occur if the car is driven over railroad tracks or a pothole or bump in a road, including a speed bump, or when a driver places the ignition key on a key ring along with a lot of other heavy keys. Deaths and other injuries have reportedly resulted, for instance, when a vehicle is jolted in a crash and the airbag fails to deploy because the crash caused the electrical system on which the air bag’s deployment depends to shut down.
In addition to spawning lawsuits for injuries sustained as a result of the defect, the recall has resulted in the firing not only of GM engineers but also of at least five GM lawyers. Information released in the wake of the lawyer firings may be particularly damaging to GM’s position in lawsuits seeking compensation for injuries caused by this defect as it reveals knowledge by GM employees of the existence of the defect long before the vehicles containing the defect were recalled.
The firings followed an investigation regarding the more than 10-year delay between GM’s discovery of the ignition-switch defect—which has so far been linked to 13 deaths and more than four dozen injuries—and GM’s initial recall of vehicles manufactured with the defect. The discharged GM lawyers are said to have known about the defects long before the first cars containing the defect were recalled, yet reportedly failed to notify their superiors of their knowledge or their perceived urgency of the problem. Perhaps of even greater significance, they have also been reported to have known about the defect and the defect’s potential for injury before the first cars containing the defect were even sold. Thus, allegations have been made that this holding back of information by GM lawyers who had knowledge of the defect and its dangers contributed, at the very least, to an increase in the number of injuries and/or deaths that resulted and may still result from the vehicles’ ignition-switch defect.
Can Individual Employees of a Corporation Be Held Liable for Injuries Caused by the Corporation’s Defective Products?
When a product, such as a motor vehicle, is released to the public in a defective state and injuries or deaths occur as a result of the product’s defect, compensation for such injuries or deaths is generally sought through the institution of a product-liability action. Under the product-liability law of most states, such actions can include negligence, breach of warranty, or strict-liability claims.
Product-liability suits for injuries caused by defective products are generally brought as strict-liability actions against the manufacturer of the product, the manufacturer of a defective product component (if such manufacturer is different form the manufacturer of the product itself), the designers of a product or product component, the distributors, retailers, assemblers, and others in the chain of the product’s distribution. Though product-liability cases are often brought against retailers of defective products, some states have disallowed such suits against retailers of allegedly defective vehicles because it was thought that retailers of autos were unfairly forced to pay for a plaintiff’s damages when the plaintiff’s injuries were caused through no fault of the retailer.
In most cases, the defendants in product-liability suits are corporate or other business entities rather than individuals. But, individuals can also be named in suits seeking compensation for injuries caused by a defective product if their actions or inactions contributed to the product defect in question or to the knowing release of the defective product to the public. Thus, design engineers and quality-control engineers may be named as defendants and found liable in a professional-liability action involving a defect in a motor-vehicle or one of its component parts if the actions or inactions of such individuals are found to have been a cause of the defect and the injuries sustained by a plaintiff as a result of the defect. If such engineers were employees of a company other than the vehicle manufacturer, those companies may be named as defendants, as well.
But, what about company lawyers who knew about a product defect as well as its potential for injury but failed to take steps to see that the defect was corrected or that the product was not released to the public in a defective state? If the lawyers were employees of the vehicle’s manufacturer and their actions contributed to the release of vehicles containing a particular defect that subsequently caused a plaintiff’s injury or death, the lawyers may be found to have contributed to the plaintiff’s injury or death, with resulting liability not only on the part of the lawyers but their employer, GM, as well.
Obtain Expert Assistance from an Experienced Personal-injury Attorney
Today’s writer, Jeff Killino, is the managing partner of The Killino Firm, P.C. and a respected litigation attorney with extensive experience with all types of accident and other personal-injury cases, including those arising out of injuries caused by defective vehicles or other products. Jeff Killino’s legal knowledge and expertise have awarded him national recognition through appearances on major television networks, including CNN, ABC FOX, and the Discovery Channel, to speak about his involvement in national cases, including one that resulted in the recall of 450,000 tires manufactured in China.