As expected, the parents of actor Anton Yelchin have filed a lawsuit against Jeep for Yelchin’s death on June 19, 2016. Yelchin was found dead, having been crushed by his own 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Fiat Chrysler had already issued a recall for more than 800,000 similar vehicles in April, but the notice didn’t reach Yelchin until a week after his death.
The cause of the accident was obvious: Yelchin had stepped out of his vehicle, believing it to be in park, and it started rolling behind him. Unfortunately, as we know from our automotive product liability law practice, this isn’t the first time someone was hit by their own car and it probably won’t be the last. So how does this type of accident keep happening?
Cars these days are specifically designed to make their operation as easy as possible. The car companies spend thousands of hours testing every part of the car, from the cruise control to the radio, to make it seamless and second-nature. Car companies specifically employ “human factors” and “ergonomics” experts to make the car feel less like a piece of heavy machinery and more like an extension of your own hands and feet. From the moment a driver gets in, everything they do is designed to come naturally.
And that’s where the problem starts: most people rarely think consciously about what they do in a car. Think of the last time you drove a rental car. How long did it take before you started moving? Thirty seconds? A minute? As soon as you can get the car started, your brain goes into auto-pilot.
And that’s where the Yelchin tragedy starts. Car companies want drivers to be as comfortable as possible in the car as quickly as possible, not least because of the importance of the short “test drive” that often determines if a person buys a car or not. MotorTrend praised the Jeep Grand Cherokee for its “user-friendly infotainment system,” but that’s exactly the type of environment that lulls a driver into a sense of complacency.
The next step of the tragedy involves compromises. Every change in the design of a car usually requires some other change. For example, if the car company changes the angle of the seat, then they have to change the angle of the steering wheel, and then they often change the wiring to the steering wheel. As another example, many newer cars these days come with complicated computer systems that allow the driver to control everything from the temperature to the Bluetooth connection with a touch screen in the middle of the dashboard. That specific change in the driving environment requires many other changes around it, including changes affecting the gear selector.
In the case of Yelchin’s Jeep Grand Cherokee, all of those changes together ended up producing a car with a gear selector that wasn’t intuitive. It was in a typical location, but it didn’t function like a typical gear shifter, and instead worked more like the controls from a fighter jet cockpit. Maybe that design choice was intentional, a part of the “style” used to create a certain feeling. It’s telling that the same gear shifter was also used on the Dodge Charger, the Chrysler 300, and the Dodge Durango, all of which are marketed towards more of a “sporty” consumer.
But that’s not where the tragedy ends. In product liability lawsuits, the problem rarely comes from a single design flaw. Rather, several design flaws together cause the accident.
In this case, even if we put aside the problems with the gear selector, there are several more fundamental questions worth asking. There is no good reason for a driver to leave their car while the car is neither in park nor is the parking brake selected. Why didn’t the car have an alarm that sounded whenever the driver’s door was opened with the car not in park? Why didn’t the car have an automatic door locking feature whenever the car was in gear? Any of these types of basic measures would have prevented the accident, yet none of them were used.
We applaud Yelchin’s family for bringing this lawsuit. When a family loses a child, it’s never about the money, and it’s never about compensation. It’s a difficult, ongoing reminder of their loss and of all the steps that could of been taken to prevent it. Sadly, however, these types of product liability lawsuits are often the only way that the major car companies can be taught to put safety over sales.