Vehicle-component Warnings and Instructions: Automakers’ Duty to keep up with Improved Technologies

With so much attention focused on vehicle-component issues in the auto industry, it can be easy for a victim to overlook a potential claim against an automaker based upon an alternate theory. In addition to design and manufacturing related defects, product liability claims can also be grounded upon a defect in warning(s) or instruction(s) provided. Indeed, automakers have become increasingly aware of the potential for exposing themselves to liability due to improper, inadequate, or lack of warning or instruction—the result of which has led to significant improvements in recent decades, as well as a decrease in failure to warn/instruct claims. However, as technology continues to improve, auto manufacturers must remember their ongoing obligation to warn/instruct consumers in accordance with changes and improvements to safety features offered in new vehicles.

Everything from braking systems to safety restraints to cigarette lighters, have been the subject of warning or instruction related claims in the past. You may have noticed that vehicle owner manuals are much thicker than they once were, and that the use of in-vehicle warning labels has increased substantially over the years. This is not because auto makers feel that we have somehow become less intelligible, and therefore need more detailed warnings and instructions. Rather, it is because technological advancements in vehicles necessitate enhanced instructions, not only to protect consumers, but also to shield automakers from potential liability.

Consider airbags for example. When they were initially introduced, the standard quickly became equipping vehicles with driver and passenger airbags that would inflate upon impact. Nowadays though, some vehicles have up to a dozen airbags, some of which can be deactivated with an in-vehicle switch, and some of which use sensors to detect passenger occupancy. With so many airbags and so many options, it would be hard for the average consumer to fully understand precisely how and when particular airbags may deploy in the event of a crash, without sufficient warning and instruction.

Airbag injuries are often equated with defects, in part due to the large number of safety recalls in recent years. However, many airbag injuries occur due to improper use, such as when they are not used in conjunction with a seatbelt; the motorist forgets that they have depressed the deactivation switch; or a child is positioned in dangerous proximity to the vehicle’s airbags. These are the types of things that automakers have continued to address through improved instruction and warning. But, will automakers be able to keep up in the future?

As product liability attorneys, we see several potential concerns…

Technology is always improving, making the issue of adequate and sufficient warning/instruction an ongoing and ever-changing dilemma. Not only airbags, but safety features in general, have undoubtedly become increasing complex. While some warning and instructions are mandated by the government, others are left up to automakers, who must provide ample information to ensure that consumers understand the function and use of components included in their vehicle. As features increase in both quantity and complexity, will automakers be able to effectively relay information in a ‘one-size-fits all’ manner, in light of the fact that what may be ample warning/instruction for one consumer may not be sufficient for another?

We also see potential problems with over-warning and over-instruction. Consider in-vehicle warning labels, for example. There are so many in vehicles these days, that many of us simply disregard them. Would including more and/or making them more noticeable solve the problem, or would this just irritate car buyers and lead to further disregard of their presence? With regard to owner manuals, should they continue to be expanded to the point where consumers wouldn’t even bother reading them, and they no longer fit in our glove box? Automakers need to find a happy medium in between too much and too little information, and do so in a way that will not weaken or dilute the message trying to be relayed.

While, at least for now, warning and instructed related issues appear to have taken a backseat to defect-related issues—but we must not forget their significance. Consumers have a right to be properly warned and instructed, and automakers have the duty to provide them with this.

The Chicago Attorneys of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. represent auto accident victims in a diverse range of claims, including those involving product liability brought against auto manufacturers. We invite you to contact us with any questions or concerns following a crash, either online, or by calling us at 773-516-4100.