Proving Sudden Unintended Acceleration

Sudden Unintended Acceleration (“SUA”) became a national issue when in 1986 CBS TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes broadcast a now well-known segment about numerous Audi 5000s having suddenly and unintentionally accelerated with disastrous consequences. However, during the broadcast, 60 minutes allegedly gave airtime to an expert who, for the purposes of TV demonstration, rigged an Audi 5000 to “suddenly” and “unintentionally” accelerate on cue.

Within months, and even years later, Audi struggled to turn a profit. Used Audi 5000s sold for mere cents on the dollar. Audi’s finances finally began to recover in 1994 with the introduction of the company’s wildly popular and competent A4 sedan.

Lawsuits concerning SUA have proliferated across all makes and models of cars and trucks since the 60 Minutes-Audi controversy. Accordingly, courts have continued to tailor rules of evidence and product liability to better address claims of SUA.

A case decided by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2010 involved a plaintiff who claimed that, while entering a freeway, her Ford Explorer’s cruise control system caused her vehicle to speed out of control and crash. Watson v. Ford Motor Co., 699 S.E.2d 169, 173 (S.C. 2010). At trial, the plaintiff’s first expert witness, Anderson, testified that electromagnetic interference could foul a vehicle’s cruise control circuitry and subsequently cause SUA. Id. The plaintiff’s second expert witness, Williams, offered his opinions about cruise control diagnostics, and brought four witnesses who testified about also having experienced SUA while driving Ford Explorers. Id.

The Court rejected Anderson’s expert witness testimony about electromagnetic interference. Id. at 178. Specifically, Anderson’s background involved large-scale electrical generators, and not small-scale vehicle electronics. Id. According to the Court, Anderson’s background in high-voltage and complex wiring systems did not amount to expertise in the automotive field, particularly cruise control systems. Id. The Court also rejected Williams’s expert witness testimony because Williams admitted that he never compared the Explorer’s cruise control system to that of any other vehicle. Id. at 176. Further, he had never taught or published on cruise control systems. Id.

Finally, as to witnesses who testified about also having experienced SUA in Ford Explorers, the Court determined that the experts “failed to show a similarity of causation between the malfunction in this case and the malfunction in the other incidents and failed to exclude reasonable explanations for the cause of the other incidents.” Id. at 179.

With the advent and anticipated acceptance of driverless vehicle technology, potential legal issues involving SUA may become even more technical and scientific in scope than today’s cases. Technology and science experts may be called upon to offer opinions about causation not incident to human interaction or interference. In addition, driverless SUA, if it were to occur, may offer a better understanding of the causes of SUA today, whether rooted in human or technological error, or some combination thereof.

Manufacturing the Audi Scare: http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cjm_18.htm

60 Minutes Wasn’t Above Taking Audi’s Money Before Destroying Them: http://jalopnik.com/5942929/60-minutes-wasnt-above-taking-audis-money-before-destroying-them

Audi Unintended Acceleration PR film from 1987 Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otyax6onMWw (editor’s note: when compared to today’s Audi cars, the 1987 Audi 5000 was relatively underpowered)

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