A recent survey determined that the average age of the 258 million cars on the roads of America is 11.5 years and steadily climbing.
Auto makers credit the increasing quality and durability of their products for the advancing age. However, this raises an important question – How long are auto makers legally responsible for defects?
The average consumer would expect or assume that a manufacturer is liable for defects as long as the vehicle is being used, but this is not true in at least 20 of the 50 states.
20 states have enacted Statutes of Repose, laws that completely cut off manufacturers’ liability for defects once the product reaches an arbitrary chronologic age assigned by the state legislature. The product age limit ranges from a low of 10-years in a number of states (ex.: Ohio and Connecticut unless the warranty is longer) to a high of 15-years unless the manufacturer says useful life is longer in Texas.
These “no more liability laws” typically apply to all of the vehicle components as well, airbags, seat belts, tires, ignition switches, sudden acceleration problems, and all of the other component defects that have caused recent and frequent media storms.
In Florida, the country’s third largest state, and home to an ever growing population of senior citizens, many with older low mileage cars, the Statute of Repose is 12-years [F.S. 95.031(2)b], Georgia has a 10-year Statute of Repose, Iowa has 15 unless the warranty is longer, and Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, D.C., Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming all have none.
The states that have Statutes of Repose justify their original enactment by the claim that manufacturers should only be held responsible during the “useful life” of the vehicle. However, most of these statutes were enacted many years ago and the laws should be eliminated or adjusted to match the current actual life of vehicles.
Statutes of Repose pose another problem – concealment. If a manufacturer becomes aware of a defect they have the ability to look the other way, or sweep it under the rug for a few years and allow the problem vehicles to “age out” beyond the Statute of Repose. Although many states statutes provide a fraud exception, claiming fraud is one thing but having access to the evidence to prove it is quite another.
Three state supreme courts have found statutes of repose to be unconstitutional: Arizona (Hazine v. Montgomery Elevator, 861 P.2d 625 (Ariz. 1993)), Rhode Island (Kennedy v. Cumberland, 471 A.2d 195 (R.I. 1984)), and New Hampshire (Heath v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 123 N.H. 512 (1983)). In Arizona, the Court held the state statute barring actions for injuries occurring more than 12-years after the product was first sold violated the state constitutional prohibition against the revocation of a right of a cause of action to recover damages for injuries. Hazine, 861 P.2d at 629. The Rhode Island Supreme Court held the state statute of repose unconstitutional as denying court access to those injured by products more than 10-years old. Kennedy, 471 A.2d at 198. Finally, in Heath, the Court held the 12-year period of repose and three-year statute of limitations contained in the state statute were held unconstitutional because it functioned to abolish a cause of action before wrongdoing could be reasonably discovered. Heath, 123 N.H. at 525-526.
In an age where media reports of vehicle defects and recalls is nearly a daily occurrence consumers need to be aware that depending on the state in which they live, a vehicle manufacturer may have no responsibility whatsoever for a defect that injures or kills them if the vehicle is just old enough.
Unfortunately, we have had to turn away many deserving clients and their families who were injured or killed by a clearly identifiable defect simply because the vehicle was past its supposed “useful life” when a defect manifested itself and caused an injury.
However, it is extremely important that a proper investigation be made to determine whether the product or part falls within the statute of repose. Please contact our office for a free consultation if you know of anyone injured or killed by a defect so that we may help in evaluating your claim.