Vehicle Manufacturer May Be Liable for Defective Windshield Despite Intervening Criminal Act
Manufacturers of consumer goods have an obligation to design, manufacture and market products that do not have defects that cause foreseeable injuries to consumers. A recent court decision out of California found that the manufacturer of a motor vehicle may be liable for injuries sustained because a windshield is not designed or manufactured with sufficient impact resistance. The accident victim suffered a tragic brain injury when a 15-year-old threw a two and a half pound block of concrete from an overpass that struck the windshield of the vehicle.
Both sides of the personal injury lawsuit essentially agreed to the facts above, which provided the basis of a criminal conviction of the teenager for assault with a deadly weapon. Presumably, the vehicle manufacturer in this case (Navistar) was sued because the teenager did not have means to pay a personal injury judgment even though the plaintiff would likely have been successful in obtaining a judgment against the teenager.
Navistar defended the case by claiming that the act of the teenager was a “superseding cause” of the accident so that the vehicle maker could not be held liable. Essentially, this defense is based on the notion that sometimes unforeseeable acts of third parties, such as criminal actions may prevent liability for negligence. The issue usually turns on the foreseeability of the intervening act between the negligent conduct and the injury. An illustration is useful in understanding when an “intervening cause” that does not cut off liability for a negligent act rises to the level of a “superseding cause” that generally does result in severing liability for the negligent act that started a chain of events.
A drunk driver runs a red light and T-bones a driver who entered the intersection on a green light. The injury victim hit by the drunk driver is rushed to the hospital. If the injury victim has the wrong leg amputated at the hospital, the driver might be liable for the wrong limb amputation. The reason for imposing liability is that medical malpractice might not be a superseding cause because medical treatment, including substandard medical treatment, is foreseeable when negligent drivers cause an accident. By contrast, the negligent driver is less likely to be liable for the injury victim being shot during a robbery of the medical facility. The shooting is more likely to be considered a superseding cause because gunshot injuries to others are not generally a foreseeable risk of driving under the influence.
When we apply this analysis to our falling concrete example, the fact that the concrete that penetrated the windshield was intentionally thrown does not make it any less of a foreseeable risk. The concrete or similar object could have just as easily fallen off of an improperly loaded semi-truck or pickup and penetrated the windshield of the driver. The key is that whether the windshield penetration was caused by negligent loading of a vehicle or an intentional assault, the windshield is defective if it does not resist a certain amount of impact from flying objects and debris.
As the appellate court explained, “In the case of a rock hitting a windshield, liability for a defective design does not depend on whether the projective falls from a rock outcropping, passing gravel truck or the hands of a juvenile delinquent. A windshield is not any less defective because it is pierced by an intentionally, rather than an unintentionally, thrown rock...”
The issue of superseding causes is often used by both individuals and companies whose negligent conduct initiates a chain of events that result in injury. This case demonstrates that just because there is an intentional wrongful, even criminal act, that occurs between the negligent conduct and injury does not necessarily relieve the negligent business or individual from responsibility. This is important in situations where the most obvious defendant is a juvenile vandal or uninsured drunk driver who lacks the ability to pay a judgment or settlement.
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