Can product liability be avoided on a legal technicality?

When bringing a product liability lawsuit, an injured consumer may anticipate challenges regarding causation and the amount of his or her damages. For example, a manufacturer may attempt to offer alternative theories for the consumer’s injury, possibly even including the actions of the consumer under a contributory negligence affirmative defense. A defendant in a product liability lawsuit may also challenge the plaintiff’s damages, offering alternative calculations.

Yet what is surprising about a recent story is that a car manufacturer attempted to characterize a security flaw as a non-defect under applicable law. Specifically, Fiat Chrysler knew that the onboard software in its vehicles had a type of radio vulnerability. The software, called Uconnect, allows drivers to link their smartphones to the onboard hands-free navigation and Bluetooth system. In addition to calling and texting, the pairing also allows drivers to turn on the engine remotely and use GPS directions.

Unfortunately, the vulnerability that the automaker knew about for around a year and a half related to that remote engine feature: Hackers could switch off the engine mid-operation. Readers might recall that GM faced a similar safety risk of sudden engine failure, although from faulty ignition switches rather than navigation software.

In this case, however, Fiat Chrysler has come off as unapologetic. After researchers at a recent security conference exposed the flaw, the automaker attempted to justify its silence on a technicality: the legal definition of a safety defect. Fiat Chrysler made this same assertion in documents filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Yet would this defense fly in the courtroom? As a law firm that focuses on personal injury and product liability lawsuits, we know that jurors can be very sympathetic to injuries caused by a malfunctioning feature in a defective motor vehicle.

Source: ZDNet, “Regulators left in dark over Chrysler security flaw for 18 months,” Charlie Osborne, Aug. 6, 2015

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