NY TIMES 1/4/03
The Lawyers Are Lurking Over S.U.V.'s
F you are a motorist, you may be worried about the safety threat posed by all those hulking sport utility vehicles. But if you are an automaker, your big worry until now has been regulation. S.U.V.'s have been a godsend, after all, to the auto companies, providing enormous profits and a bulwark against the foreign competition that has made the car business so tough.
"Customers liked S.U.V.'s, and Washington hadn't seemed to be in any mood to regulate, so the profits kept coming. All that may soon change, however, and for automakers, it's time to be afraid ? very afraid.
"It's not that buyers are losing their taste for these gas-guzzling, rollover-prone behemoths. The problem is, a new class of people ? the nation's trial lawyers ? is about to develop a special affection for S.U.V.'s.
"The beginning of a new year is a good time for predictions, so here's mine: S.U.V.'s are next on the agenda for the plaintiff's bar. In America, for better or worse, we regulate hazards of this kind through the tort system. Public policy on tobacco, firearms and asbestos, among other hazards, has been shaped in recent years by this crude tool. More recently, a lawsuit was filed against a fast-food company, accusing it of making plaintiffs fat.
"But why now? Is there something about the law or the facts that suddenly makes the legal case against S.U.V.'s compelling? The answer is that these suits have less to do with the law or the facts than with the social climate. The tobacco suits, for instance, would have seemed preposterous in the days when many more people smoked. But smoking eventually became socially unacceptable. Smokers were increasingly marginalized until they were finally ejected altogether from most public buildings, and cigarettes, once the height of cool, are now very much the opposite.
"The same is about to happen with S.U.V.'s. While sales remain strong, these vehicles are palpably losing cachet. ...
"This is not to suggest that the facts on S.U.V.'s look good. Mr. Bradsher, a correspondent for The New York Times and formerly the paper's bureau chief in Detroit, reports that for every life saved by a Ford Explorer, five others will be taken. If your car is hit from the side by another car, he writes, you are 6.6 times likelier to die than someone in the striking vehicle; but if you are hit by an S.U.V., the ratio rises to 30 to 1. They might as well call these things plaintiff makers.
And if you think buying an S.U.V. will protect you, think again. There is an automotive arms race out there, but it will not help anyone. According to Mr. Bradsher, the death rate for those in S.U.V.'s is 6 percent higher than it is for those in cars.
So, based on the facts alone, S.U.V. plaintiffs would seem to have a plausible case ? particularly those who were victimized while driving regular cars. ...
Some S.U.V. suits have been filed already, particularly relating to deaths and injuries from rollovers. With the kind of money at stake ? automakers are classic deep-pocket parties ? more serious litigation will come, including the inevitable class actions. Don't be surprised if some ambitious state attorneys general get into the act, too.
We may even see a social benefit from such litigation. As Mercedes-Benz has proved, it's entirely possible to design an S.U.V. that is reasonably safe for its owners as well as everyone else on the road. A lot of other car companies will soon discover the same thing. ..."
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