Recalls Should Be Resolved Promptly

June 27, 2010

The importance of the timely resolution of recall issues was clearly pointed out in a recent court settlement involving Enterprise Rent-A-Car. A jury in California awarded $15 million to the parents of two sisters who perished in a wreck with a truck after crossing into oncoming traffic.

The case dates back to the fall of 2004 and along the way Enterprise offered the family $3 million to keep the matter confidential, an offer they refused, according to their attorney Lawrence Grassini and reported in the Mercury News.

The repair issue was a leaking power steering hose which could cause a fire. The recall occurred a month prior to the girls renting the 2004 PT Cruiser in which they died. Experts appearing at the trial for the plaintiffs concluded that a power steering leak caused the driver to lose control of her car and collide with the truck. Company records cited in the trial indicated that the victims were the fourth customers to rent the car after it had been recalled.

At issue in the trial was whether Enterprise was negligent in not taking the PT Cruiser off the road when they received the recall notice that the power steering hose was a suspected cause of vehicle fires. Eventually, the company admitted that "their negligence was the sole proximate cause of the fatal injuries."

Since 1966 the NHTSA has recalled 390 million vehicles, 46 million tires and 42 million child safety seats because of defects affecting their safe use. A safety defect is “defined as a problem that exists in a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment that poses a risk to motor vehicle safety,” and exists in like vehicles or like motor vehicle equipment.

It's mandated by law that the car manufacturers notify NHTSA within five days of their knowledge of a safety defect. Currently, for example, the agency is looking into the timing of Toyota’s notification of problems with steering relay rods which prompted a recall in Hi Lux trucks. Toyota claimed that the problem was confined to vehicles in Japan. However NHTSA has recently found evidence that there were complaints in the U.S. prior to the Japanese recall.

The short time frame that the government allows for notification should be taken as an indication by consumers of just how urgent recall resolution is. Any recall letter should be treated as a priority, so much so, that NHTSA has special instructions posted on their website that inform the consumer of steps to take if they are not able to make an appointment with the car dealer.

What the tragic case in California points out is the need for not only car rental companies but also car dealers to provide proof that vehicles in their control like demos and trade-ins have had their recalled problems corrected. Fortunately for us, the plaintiffs in that case did not opt for confidentiality and have shown some light onto an otherwise little publicized problem.

[Mercury News, NHTSA]    

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