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SUV rollover lawsuits

I originally posted on Overlawyered about a $31 million South Carolina verdict to highlight the personal-responsibility issues of holding the auto manufacturer liable for an accident where an unbelted child was hurt when the driver turned around to argue with the kids in the back seat. But there are also larger public policy implications to the entire class of litigation:

1. South Carolina is one of the few states that has the pure form of the doctrine of "joint and several liability", under which any deep-pocket defendant is 100% liable even if they're only found 1% at fault. Thirty-seven states have enacted some limits on this, but South Carolina has not. Such a legal system creates incentives to find the deepest pocket and attach a shred of fault to them so that they are held entirely responsible for the consequences of others.

2. I've read several plaintiffs' briefs arguing for upholding similar verdicts, as well as submissions made to NHTSA arguing that certain vehicles are "too prone" to roll over. They essentially come down to requests to ban SUVs: every SUV faces accusations of being "too prone to roll over."

SUVs are designed to have high clearance to traverse rugged terrain. This raises the center of gravity and affects the handling: it's a known tradeoff of the laws of physics. There are a wide variety of tests of varying degrees of scientific merit one can use to suggest a vehicle is "too prone" to roll over, and plaintiffs have the benefit of cherry-picking which tests to apply to which vehicles. You'll find lots of lawyers complaining that the Bronco II allegedly responded poorly in "J-turn tests", where the steering wheel is turned 330 degrees in one third of a second and held there for another 4.67 seconds. Ford designed the Explorer to pass the J-turn test to take away this claim, and the trial lawyers started using different methodologies to claim that the Explorer was too prone to roll over.

Empirically, however, the Bronco doesn't roll over more than several other SUVs on the market, which is why NHTSA, in both the Bush I and Clinton administrations, refused to recall the Bronco when the plaintiffs' bar asked it to. When I say Ford was held liable for producing an SUV, I'm not spinning: it was because it was held liable for producing an SUV.

Moreover, a vehicle should be viewed in totality: an auto that is more likely to roll over may be safer in other particulars that more than compensate for that increased propensity. So I question the premise. One can't change the rollover propensity without creating a different vehicle entirely. The vehicle should be viewed holistically, and holistically, the Bronco is a safe car when used as designed.

Perhaps we as a society would be better off taking the nanny-state step of banning SUVs, forbidding people from wildnerness driving because too many drivers don't know how to drive SUVs in highway conditions, but that's a decision that not only would end the American auto industry, but should be made other than by a 12-person jury of laypeople. This vehicle rolled over because the driver drove off the road.

3. The ultimate cost is borne not by Ford, but by the rest of us: lawsuits like this add $500 to the price of every American car. You and I can't go to the car manufacturer and get a cheaper car by promising not to be as stupid a driver as this one was. So careful drivers are subsidizing careless ones.

4. It's unlikely that the $500 applies equally to expensive and cheap cars, but not in the manner you think: (1) the less expensive car is more likely to be driven longer and more often and with more carpooling passengers; (2) less likely to have expensive top-of-the-line safety features that haven't yet become standard and thus more likely to be sued over the lack of those features; and (3) more likely to be sold in such a volume that trial lawyers have put together a cheap package targeting the vehicle for lawsuit in the hopes of achieving economies of scale by targeting a lot of potential plaintiffs. (There will never be a mass tort for a Rolls Royce, for example�not enough of them are sold.) Note that the plaintiffs' bar puts profits before people: they look at the costs and benefits of bringing suit, and target the most profitable vehicles to sue over, rather than the most dangerous ones, which is why the Ford Pinto is notorious and the VW Beetle (whose designers were so inconsiderate to write their memos in German instead of cheap-to-analyze English), which killed people at a much higher rate, is remembered with fond nostalgia.

So average liability is, if anything, higher for cheap cars than expensive cars; the $500 figure (which comes directly from the president of Chrysler) is probably higher for cheap cars and lower for expensive cars, and perhaps close to zero for the Rolls.



Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.