Punitive Damages in Automotive Products Liability Actions

A plaintiff in an automotive products liability action is generally required to prove that a motor vehicle as sold contained a defect in its design, in the way in which it was manufactured or assembled, or in the failure to warn of a risk inherent in its operation that created an unreasonable risk of death, personal injury, or property damage when the vehicle was used for its intended purpose and that the defect caused an accident or similar incident, such as a vehicle fire, that resulted in the loss or damage for which the plaintiff seeks to recover damages. Because proof of the existence of such conditions does not involve passing judgment on the conduct of the manufacturer, but merely on the status of the vehicle as sold, the plaintiff in such a case can ordinarily recover only his or her actual damages, which can include economic losses and damages for non-economic losses based on the jury's determination of the dollar value of the pain and suffering resulting from the accident. Sometimes, though, the manufacturer's conduct in dealing with the alleged vehicle defect becomes an issue in the case, and the plaintiff may then attempt to recover punitive damages in addition to the actual damages suffered.

Punitive damages, sometimes called exemplary damages, are damages assessed against a defendant in a legal action in order to punish the defendant financially for the conduct that has resulted in the incident that gave rise to the action. Punitive damages in products liability cases are sought in situations where a manufacturer's actions are alleged to exhibit what amounts to a heedless disregard for the safety of purchasers or users of a product. An example of conduct that might give rise to a claim for punitive damages in an automotive products liability case would be the failure to conduct a safety-related recall campaign on a group of vehicles after the manufacturer has obtained knowledge of an inordinate number of catastrophic failures of a part or assembly in those vehicles that has created an unreasonable risk of injury. A manufacturer may assert in response that its conduct was not such as to justify an award of punitive damages, or that the amount of punitive damages sought is out of proportion to any alleged misconduct by the manufacturer or to the actual damages suffered by the plaintiff.

The law of products liability, including automotive products liability law, has evolved in the United States over the course of more than half a century out of the separate legal systems of each of the states rather than from a single unified body of federal law. As a result, the legal standards governing awards of punitive damages in automotive products liability cases will vary from state to state.

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