Vehicle Defects and Recalls

Monday, March 11, 2013

Article Written By: Katie Farrell, Staff Writer

When is a Recall Necessary?

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards set minimum performance requirements for those parts of the vehicle that most affect its safe operation (brakes, tires, lighting) or that protect drivers and passengers from death or serious injury in the event of a crash (air bags, safety belts, child restraints, energy absorbing steering columns, motorcycle helmets) and are applicable to all vehicles and equipment manufactured or imported for sale in the United States certified for use on public roads and highways. A recall becomes necessary:


  1. When a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment (including tires) does not comply with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard.
  2. When there is a safety-related defect in the vehicle or equipment.

Safety-Related Defects

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act gives the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the authority to issue vehicle safety standards and to require manufacturers to recall vehicles with safety-related defects or that do not meet safety standards. Generally, a safety-related defect is a problem that exists in a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment that:

  1. Poses an risk to motor vehicle safety, and
  2. May exist in a group of vehicles of the same design or manufacture, or items of equipment of the same type and manufacture.

Examples of safety defects include:

  • Steering components that break suddenly causing partial or complete loss of vehicle control.
  • Problems with fuel system components, particularly in their susceptibility to crash damage, that result in leakage of fuel and possibly cause vehicle fires.
  • Accelerator controls that may break or stick.
  • Wheels that crack or break, resulting in loss of vehicle control.
  • Engine cooling fan blades that break unexpectedly causing injury to persons working on a vehicle.
  • Windshield wiper assemblies that fail to operate or malfunction.
  • Seats and/or seat backs that fail unexpectedly during normal use.
  • Critical vehicle components that break, fall apart, or separate from the vehicle causing loss of vehicle control or injury to persons inside or outside the vehicle.
  • Wiring system problems that result in a fire or loss of lighting.
  • Car ramps or jacks that collapse causing injury to someone working on a vehicle.
  • Air bags that deploy under conditions for which they are not designed to deploy.
  • Child safety seats that contain defective safety belts, buckles, or components that create a risk of injury, not only in a vehicle crash but also in non-operational safety of a motor vehicle.

Defects Unrelated to Safety

Problems with vehicles or equipment generally not considered to be safety-related defects under federal law include:

  • Air conditioners and radios that do not operate properly.
  • Ordinary wear of equipment that has to be inspected, maintained, and replaced periodically. Such equipment includes shock absorbers, batteries, brake pads and shoes, and exhaust systems.
  • Nonstructural or body panel rust.
  • Quality of paint or cosmetic blemishes.
  • Excessive oil consumption.

How Does a Recall Start?

Many vehicle and equipment recalls are initiated voluntarily by the vehicle/equipment manufacturers, while others are either influenced by NHTSA investigations or complaints by vehicle owners.

Most decisions to conduct a recall and remedy a safety defect are made voluntarily by manufacturers prior to any involvement by NHTSA. Through their own tests, inspection procedures and information gathering systems, manufacturers often discover that a safety defect exists or that the requirements of a safety standard have not been met. If a safety defect is discovered, the manufacturer must notify NHTSA, as well as vehicle or equipment owners, dealers, and distributors. The manufacturer is then required to remedy the problem at no charge to the vehicle owner. NHTSA is responsible for monitoring the manufacturer's corrective action for adequacy and for compliance with statutory requirements.

Also, as vehicles age with use, certain design and performance problems may occur which are often reported by owners to NHTSA. These reports form the basis for NHTSA's defect investigations, which often result in significant safety recalls.

What Are the Ways in Which a Recalled Vehicle or Item of Equipment May Be Remedied?

Once a defect determination is made, the law gives the manufacturer three options for correcting the defect: repair, replacement, or refund. The manufacturer may choose to repair the vehicle; replace the vehicle with an identical or similar vehicle; or refund the purchase price in full, minus a reasonable allowance for depreciation. In the case of equipment, including tires and child safety seats, the manufacturer can either repair or replace.

Contact an Attorney

Although vehicles are a necessary aspect of our day-to-day lives, they also pose a very serious threat to our safety and as a result, may have traumatic effects. If you or a loved one has suffered from a vehicle defect or your car has been recalled, contact an experienced attorney immediately to ensure your legal rights are protected.

Practice Areas: 

Consumer Rights