What to Know When Your Car is Recalled

Also see Part 2:What to Do When Your Car is Recalled.”

Takata Corp., one of the world’s largest manufacturers of airbags, last week expanded its airbag recall to include about 34 million cars and trucks in the U.S. When I last wrote about the Takata recall in March, the total was about 17 million vehicles in the U.S. and 22 million worldwide.

The Takata recalls affect vehicles manufactured from 2000 to 2011 by at least 11 automakers, including Honda, Toyota and General Motors. At least six people have been killed by the defective airbags, including Ashley Parham, a Midwest City teenager killed in 2009 by airbag shrapnel to her neck in a minor collision in the high school parking lot.

This month’s expansion makes the Takata recall the largest safety recall in U.S. history. With about 250 million vehicles currently on U.S. roads, the recall affects about one out of every 7 cars.

Just like the rain here in Oklahoma the last few weeks, the torrent of auto and truck recalls never seems to stop. Last year, it was the General Motors ignition switch recall, which involved about 25 million cars in the U.S. GM has now admitted that more than 100 deaths are connected to those ignition switch problems. The cars would just shut off while being driven, disabling the power steering and the airbag.

There have been about 100 million vehicle recalls in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2014, and about 25 million of those have occurred so far in 2015. Nowadays, if you own a car or truck, the odds are good that your vehicle will be recalled for some safety defect.

Everybody who owns or drives a car needs to understand how recalls work and what to do about them.

Has Your Car Been Recalled?

If your make, model and year of vehicle has been recalled, the manufacturer is required to contact you. However, if you have moved or you are not the original owner and have never registered your information with the manufacturer or an authorized dealer, the automaker may have no way to contact you.

An easy way to check for recalls is to go to https://vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin. That’s a free, online service offered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Just enter your VIN — that the 17-digit vehicle identification number on the driver’s side of the dashboard, as well as on your insurance verification card.

If your vehicle has been recalled but it has not been repaired, that site will tell you. When you are buying a used car or truck, it’s a good idea to check the VIN to see if the vehicle is in need of any recall-related repairs before you close the deal.

What if you are not the original owner of the vehicle? That doesn’t matter. If you own the vehicle now and it qualifies under terms of the recall, you have the right to take it in for repair.

What Are Recalls All About?

Vehicle recalls are always about safety issues. Auto and truck recalls involve such problems as air bags (Takata), ignition problems (GM), accelerator problems (Toyota), tires (remember the Firestone recall more than a decade ago?), and fuel system components (going all the way back to the infamous 1978 Ford Pinto recall; due to an awkward placement of the gas tank, more than two dozen Pintos burst into flames when they were rear-ended).

Many of the above recalls are dramatic — air bag shrapnel, cars shutting down on the highway, gas tanks exploding — but some recalls involve relatively minor problems. However, safety is always the basis for a recall. Problems such as defective air conditioners, shock absorbers, paint jobs, etc., will not result in a recall, unless the problem somehow poses a safety risk.

Voluntary Recalls by the Manufacturers

A recall can be initiated by the manufacturer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the courts.

Most recalls are initiated voluntarily by the automakers. Some automakers have had to learn this truth the hard way, but it is just smart business to announce a recall when a serious defect is discovered.

Correcting the defect limits the number of vehicle owners who experience harms and losses, thus limiting the automakers liability. Also, if the defect leads to legal actions, a manufacturer is much better positioned before a judge and jury if it can show that it announced a recall voluntarily, as soon as the defect was discovered, and that it made every effort to warn owners to bring their vehicles in for repairs.

On the other hand, when it is discovered that an automaker knew about a dangerous defect but did nothing, or worse, that it attempted to conceal the risk from the public, juries are more likely to issue large awards, including punitive damages.

In the Ford Pinto debacle of the 1970s, it was discovered that Ford knew all about the Pinto’s gas tank problem and had even developed a redesign that would have solved the problem at a cost of $11 per car. A Ford internal memo said the redesign would have potentially saved 180 lives. However, the same internal memo concluded that it would cost Ford $137 mi llion to implement the change, while lawsuits that might result from deaths and injuries were projected to add up to about $50 million. Ford decided to conceal the Pinto problem, let people be killed and injured, and deal with them in court.

When a jury in one Ford Pinto civil case learned about that Ford memo, it gave an award against Ford of $125 million in punitive damages. (However, as often happens in high-dollar personal injury awards, a judge reduced that award to just $3 million. So maybe Ford’s accountants were right in projecting that it would cost the company less to do nothing.)

Recalls by the NHTSA, Courts

The NHTSA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, can also initiate recalls. The agency investigates consumer complaints and can ask an automaker to recall and repair a defective vehicle. If the manufacturer refuses to comply, the NHTSA can hold hearings leading to a recall order. The manufacturer can contest such an order in court, but automakers almost always lose such disputes.

Courts have occasionally ordered a recall without the NHTSA even being involved. The first such case was in 2000, when a California judge ordered than almost 2 million Ford vehicles in California be recalled for defective ignition modules.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

You should not need the help of an attorney to take your vehicle in for repairs under a recall. However, if you or your family have already experienced death, injuries, or other harms and losses due to a defect that has led to a recall, it is important for you to obtainthe  legal counsel of a qualified personal injury attorney.

Any time a person experiences injury or other damages due to a defective product, that person is entitled to financial compensation from the responsibility party or company. That’s what Hasbrook and Hasbrook is all about: helping people obtain the compensation they deserve for injuries and losses that are the result of the wrongdoing of others.

If your vehicle has been declared defective and is the subject of a recall, your chances of obtaining fair compensation are gone. You have a right to be reimbursed for wrongful death, serious injury, permanent disability, medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

For a free consultation, contact Oklahoma City’s leading personal injury legal firm, Hasbrook & Hasbrook, by telephone (866-416-4737), email (cth@hasbrooklaw.com) or use our website contact form: Contact Us.

Also see Part 2 of this blog post: “What to Do When Your Car is Recalled.”