Imagine you’re driving home from work and see a red light in the distance. You begin to apply your brakes, but your vehicle doesn’t slow down. You then stomp the brakes and still nothing. At this point you’re likely panicking because you have no way to avoid entering an intersection with crossing traffic. What do you do? Is there any way to avoid the accident that now seems inevitable? Brake failure is scary, but we’re here to help.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey revealed that roughly 2% of all motor vehicle crashes are caused by some sort of vehicular problem such as brake failure or a blown tire. Brake failure accounts for roughly 22% of these car accidents. So the good news is that type of accident is rare. Brakes on modern cars don’t fail often, but as the recent GM recall shows us, it is possible. In a situation where this occurs you will want to know what to do to avoid an accident.
In Ryan v. Leach, 215 N.E.2d 877 (Ind. Ct. App. 1966), the defendant claimed that brake failure, not his own negligence, caused him to rear-end the plaintiff. The trial court gave the following jury instruction:
“A person who is driving an automobile on the public highways is not bound to anticipate or foresee any mechanical failure on the part of his automobile unless he actually knew of the defective condition or could have discovered the same in the exercise of reasonable care. Therefore, if you find that the collision in this case was caused by a failure of the brakes on the automobile of the defendant, and if you further find that the defendant did not know that the brakes on his automobile were defective or that he could not have discovered the defective condition by a reasonably careful inspection, your verdict must be for the defendant.”
The plaintiff challenged that this jury instruction was improper because it did not contain the element of proximate cause. The court of appeals agreed with the plaintiff and found the instruction improper, but stated that if it had contained a proximate cause instruction it would have been proper.
So what does this mean? Well it means that if you have taken the necessary steps to ensure your brakes are working properly and then they fail unexpectedly, and that failure, not your own negligence, causes an accident then the brake failure is a defense to liability. The plaintiff in that case will not be able to recover from you, but instead will likely be forced to go after the manufacturer of either the brakes, the braking system, or the vehicle.