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Applying the Strict Liability Standard to Motor Vehicle Manufacturers

In Georgia, product manufacturers are held to a strict liability standard. This means they are responsible for any injuries caused to individuals by a product that is “not merchantable and reasonably suited to the use intended, and its condition when sold is the proximate cause of the injury sustained.” The “proximate cause” requirement is key. Even if a product is clearly defective in its design, the manufacturer is only liable under Georgia law if that defect was the direct cause of the injury. “Direct” in this context means that no intervening act by a third party is responsible for the victim’s injury. For example, if a driver causes an car accident through his or her own negligent driving, the manufacturer of the car cannot be held strictly liable for any design defects that may have contributed to the accident.

A federal appeals court recently explained the application of the proximate cause requirement in a horrific case arising from a truck accident inside a repair shop. Although the victim presented evidence suggesting the truck manufacturer failed to include an important safety feature, the courts held it was immaterial due to an intervening act by the vehicle’s owner.

Weaver v. PACCAR Inc.

The victim in this case was an auto mechanic. While inspecting an air leak in a customer’s truck-tractor, the vehicle ran over his leg, destroying most of its muscle and tissue. The victim required three operations on the damaged leg and continues to require daily medical attention to prevent a potentially deadly infection.

The victim subsequently sued the manufacturer of the truck, claiming its failure to install a “neutral safety switch” in the vehicle was the direct cause of the accident. The accident occurred when the truck’s owner pressed the start button after inadvertently releasing the parking brake, causing the vehicle to move forward. The safety switch is designed to prevent such accidental movement of the truck while it is in neutral. But while the manufacturer makes such switches available as an option on its trucks, it is not a standard feature. Before the district court, a witness for the company said many customers choose not to install the switch as it makes the vehicle more maneuverable in certain situations.

In any event, both the district court and the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed the manufacturer could not be held liable for the victim’s injuries under Georgia’s strict liability rule. As the Court of Appeals explained, there was no “proximate causal connection” between the manufacturer’s design of the truck and the accident. Even if the victim could prove the design was defective, the “intervening act” of the truck driver in accidentally—and negligently—starting the vehicle destroyed any proximate cause. In this situation, the manufacturer could only be held liable if it could foresee the driver’s negligent operation. Obviously, it could not, the Court of Appeals said, especially since the driver was an experienced operator who possessed a commercial license. In short, a vehicle manufacturer is not responsible when an otherwise qualified driver absent-mindedly causes injury to another person with said vehicle.