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A Times Editorial

Bill lets automakers off hook too easily

The latest salvo in the interminable war between Republican lawmakers and the trial bar was launched Wednesday when the state Senate approved a bill making it harder to hold auto manufacturers responsible for the harm caused by defective cars. But that would not only hurt trial lawyers. It would burden Florida taxpayers by relieving out-of-state automakers of the financial responsibility for car crash victims harmed by dangerous vehicles.

Since traffic collisions are inevitable, courts have imposed a duty on auto manufacturers to keep the safety of crash victims in mind when designing and building vehicles. This is known as the Crashworthiness Doctrine.

Under the 2001 Florida Supreme Court decision D'Amario vs. Ford Motor Co., automakers are held responsible for any enhanced injuries or deaths in a car crash caused by the vehicle's faulty design or manufacturing defects. If there's a collision and an airbag fails, or the car's design results in a gas tank explosion — as in the most famous example, the Ford Pinto — the car company is liable regardless of how the crash occurred. Negligent drivers are still held responsible for the injuries they cause, just not for the added harms caused by the faulty vehicle — such as the burns caused by a Pinto's exploding gas tank.

The trial bar compares it to medical malpractice cases. If an emergency room patient has a botched operation, the surgeon is responsible no matter how the patient came to need the surgery.

But the bill (SB 142) sponsored by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, reverses the D'Amario ruling, allowing blame for car crash injuries to be apportioned. Under the measure, juries would be asked to determine the comparative fault of the drivers in the crash or any other party who contributed to the collision, along with the automaker. The way this plays out in court, it too often relieves the car manufacturers of financial responsibility for harms caused by their defective product. Juries are understandably more likely to blame a drunken or negligent driver for crashes and the resultant injuries.

One goal of product liability law is to encourage auto manufacturers to take seriously their duty to build safe vehicles and to not cut corners. Richter's measure is a significant step backward.

Florida taxpayers will inevitably end up shouldering the medical care costs and other financial burdens that automakers escape. Even if the change does whack the Democratic-leaning trial bar, Republican lawmakers in the House should acknowledge that it's not a good deal for Floridians and refuse to go along.

Bill lets automakers off hook too easily 03/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 8:30pm]
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