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It Takes a Lawsuit: Regulators Aren’t Doing Enough to Ensure Our Vehicles Are Safe

It Takes a Lawsuit: Regulators Aren’t Doing Enough to Ensure Our Vehicles Are Safe

A video on Bookout v. Toyota, one of the finalists for the 2014 Public Justice Trial Lawyer of the Year Award.

By Leah M. Nicholls
Staff Attorney

Today, The New York Times ran a front page article concluding that the National Highway Traffic Safety Association—the federal agency responsible for, among other things, tracking vehicle safety defects and ordering recalls—isn’t doing its job. NHTSA isn’t properly investigating complaints of potential defects, and consumers are doing a better job of identifying dangerous defects than the agency. The story highlights Bookout v. Toyota, whose legal team, led by Jere L. Beasley, was one of the finalists for our Trial Lawyer of the Year award—and the important role litigation plays in making drivers and passengers safer.

If the Times is right that NHSTA is asleep at the wheel, how is it we have had a recent record number of vehicle recalls? Toyota is recalling vehicles for unintended sudden acceleration problems; GM is recalling vehicles with faulty ignition switches that stall cars unexpectedly and prevent safety systems, like airbags, from operating; Honda is recalling cars with airbags that rupture; and Jeep is recalling SUVs with exploding gas tanks that can cause the vehicle to catch on fire in even minor accidents.

Don’t the recalls mean that NHTSA is effective? Wrong. As the Times explains, NHTSA has had evidence of all these problems for years, but either didn’t investigate, closed the investigation without pursuing all the information, or permitted the manufacturers to not answer questions about fatal accidents. In other words, the recalls could have taken place much earlier—and lives could have been saved—had NHSTA more rigorously tracked the data it did have, more aggressively pursued the leads it offered, and more vigorously sought information from manufacturers.

With manufacturers working hard to keep dangerous defects secret and NHTSA oversight not as vigorous as it could be, lawyers have stepped in to make sure our cars are safe. It’s fair to say that most, if not all, of the recalls have been driven more by pressure from lawsuits than by regulatory oversight.

In particular, the Times article highlights the case brought by the families of Jean Bookout and her passenger against Toyota after Bookout was seriously injured and her passenger killed in a crash caused by unintended sudden acceleration.The verdict in Bookout v. Toyota? Toyota knew about the defect that caused Bookout’s unintended acceleration and spent years placing the blame for unintended-acceleration crashes on driver error rather than recalling its vehicles.

Our federal regulators can do better to keep us safe, but they aren’t only ones on the beat—consumer lawyers have a critical role to play, too.