June 13, 2013

An assault on justice: blaming deep pockets for third-party crimes

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

Who do you blame when a 2.5-pound chunk of cement hurled at freeway traffic by a delinquent teenager slams through a vehicle’s window and kills the driver? The criminal who is throwing rocks, of course. But attorneys blamed those with the deepest pockets: the government (for owning the overpass from which the rock was thrown) and the manufacturer of the window (for not building a stronger windshield).  Unfortunately, upon considering the case in Collins v. Navistar, Inc., one California court of appeals made it easier to shift blame from criminals to manufacturers.

The law traditionally has said that manufacturers generally need not predict and prevent harm from crimes. But the Collins court decided that it did not matter whether the criminal intentionally hit the car with a 2.5 pound rock, since windshields should protect drivers from gravel and other debris. Rather, the court said a jury should be allowed to decide whether the manufacturer should have made a windshield to protect the driver against a rock of that size.  The lower court effectively held that a manufacturer has a duty to insure its customers from criminal activity, so long as a criminal’s weapon tracks closely enough to a risk that the manufacturer’s product might otherwise face.

The truck manufacturer is asking the California Supreme Court to review the case, and recognizing the severe implications of such a decision, PLF filed a letter brief supporting the petition.  The decision in Collins increases liability for manufacturers, which will likely raise prices and decrease consumer options. Worse, the increased cost will likely do little to improve public safety.  The decision does not give a clear standard for how a manufacturer can make a product safe enough to avoid liability. Moreover, in the case of the windshield, the manufacturer may be left with no good choices. For example, making the windshield strong enough to withstand rocks hurled from overpasses may also increase head injuries when drivers strike windshields in car accidents.

In the meantime, consumers will be left to pay more for vehicles. When prices increase for new cars, prices usually increase for used cars, consequently pushing low-income consumers into progressively less safe options, or pricing them out of the market altogether. The ripple effect continues, because access to a car is a strong predictor of workers’ ability to earn enough to be self-sufficient.

The blame in this case clearly belongs to the criminal who took drivers’ lives into his hands, for which he is currently incarcerated.  In the quest for deep pockets, courts should not turn manufacturers into insurers. We don’t need yet another ineffective and unaffordable social safety net.

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