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Rise in Large Verdicts in Defective Product Cases

For 10 years, there were no jury verdicts of $1 billion or more in cases involving defective products. In 2014, that trend stopped with several verdicts exceeding that total. Some have tied the absence of large verdicts from 2004 to last year to extensive lobbying efforts by "tort reform" groups. Others suggest that the gap was due to the settlement of the major class action lawsuits against the tobacco industry. Whatever the reason, the return of larger jury verdicts has an impact on the makers of consumer goods and the victims of injuries and illnesses caused by product defects.

The largest jury verdicts generally include punitive damages. Punitive damages are not necessarily dependent on the amount of financial harm done to the plaintiff by a defective product. They are intended to penalize the defendant and deter them from engaging in similar conduct in the future. These damages are often a major factor in civil litigation concerning defective and dangerous products. 

Final Tally of Auto Recalls Announced

By June of last year, it became clear that the total number of vehicles recalled in 2014 would be an all-time record. The final tally is in and just shy of 64 million vehicles were recalled for safety defects, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The number of vehicles recalled last year was greater than the sum of 2013, 2012 and 2011 recalls. The massive increase led to calls from NHTSA leadership that more resources and more authority were needed to keep auto makers and the makers of automobile products in line.

There were 803 total recalls initiated last year. The vast majority of those recalls were the result of internal investigation and independent action by auto makers. Only 123 were the result of NHTSA action. Still, among the recalls pushed by the NHTSA were several that led to intense debate and controversy. The NHTSA installed a new head administrator in December and he has promised firmer action, while also requesting greater resources to further the organization's mission. 

New Recommendations for the FAA

The more time that passes following an accident, the harder it is to determine the cause of that accident. The National Transportation Safety Board is asking the Federal Aviation Administration to make several changes it hopes will allow plane crashes to be found faster and will aid in investigating those crashes. The eight recommendations from the NTSB to the FAA were outlined in a 13-page letter this week. The FAA promised to review the recommendations and prepare a formal response.

The NTSB has made several of the recommendations in the past. In 2000, the NTSB asked the FAA to use video recorders in the cockpits of airplanes. The FAA did not follow that recommendation after pilots protested. Instead, the FAA released standards for the voluntary use of image recorders. The NTSB would like the recorders to be mandatory and to make it impossible for pilots or airline crew to disable the recorders or the voice and data recorders currently used in aircraft. 

Officer Discusses Truck Accident That Nearly Claimed His Life

Illinois State Trooper Douglas Balder discussed the truck accident that injured him and killed a tollway worker on the one-year anniversary of the incident. When asked about the crash, he said, "I view it as a failure of the system to take care of us." Officer Balder was not the only Illinois policeman involved in a truck crash recently. State Trooper James Sauter was struck and killed in 2013 when his cruiser was rear-ended by semi. Officer Balder and the widow of Officer Sauter are advocating for the use of reckless homicide charges in cases like theirs.

Criminal charges are one method of attempting to improve commercial trucking safety. Commercial truck accidents occur for a variety of reasons and it will take more than increased penalties to address them. The National Transportation Safety Board listed several potential methods of improvement when it placed commercial trucking safety on its 2015 Most Wanted List. 

Sleep Apnea in the Aviation Industry

The sleep disorder known as sleep apnea has safety implications in the transportation industry. People who suffer from sleep apnea suffer from interruptions in their breathing during sleep. These interruptions can occur frequently throughout the night, causing a victim to experience significant fatigue even after a normal-length sleep period. In addition to drowsiness, victims may suffer from headaches, difficulty concentrating, irritability, depression, forgetfulness and other side effects. The impact of sleep apnea on pilots, truck drivers and others in terms of safety is difficult to pinpoint.

The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to release new medical guidance to Aviation Medical Examiners regarding pilots who may be suffering from sleep apnea. A pilot diagnosed with untreated obstructive sleep apnea, one of two varieties of the condition, has been and will continue to be disqualified from FAA approval. The new guidelines concern what screening approach medical examiners should take in identifying and treating the condition to allow pilots to manage the condition and fly safely. 

Distracted Driving Is About More Than Texting

Distracted driving is a massive problem that has garnered more attention since cell phone use became commonplace. Cell phones are far from the only cause of distracted driving, however. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 2012 saw more than 3,300 deaths and 421,000 injuries caused by distracted drivers. According to Forbes, more than 60 percent of distracted driving deaths are caused by drivers who were daydreaming. The NHTSA estimates that the average driver is distracted 30 percent of the time. For whatever reason, many drivers fail to put their full concentration where it belongs - on the task of driving safely.

The proliferation of distracted driving laws has focused on texting. In total, 44 states have some form of ban on texting while driving. Older forms of distracted driving, such as eating, smoking, adjusting the car stereo, talking to passengers and dealing with children while driving have been largely ignored by lawmakers. It may be that such forms of distraction are too difficult to identify by law enforcement and prove in a court of law. If so, it raises the question of how effective other distracted driving laws have been and whether a different approach would be more successful. 

Increased Focus on Trucking Safety Needed for 2015

The National Transportation Safety Board released its priority list of safety initiatives for 2015 this week. Trucking safety appears on the list and was the subject of some pointed remarks directed toward regulators. The NTSB pointed out that it has made more than 100 recommendations of ways to improve truck safety that have not been acted on by highway regulators. While the total number of fatal accidents has trended downward over the past four years, trucking fatalities have risen in each of those years. The NTSB only has the power to make recommendations. It does not have the authority to make or enforce trucking regulations.

The director of highway safety investigations at the NTSB pointed to new technology in suggesting that trucking crashes could be reduced. The NTSB has led the push for safety sensors and electronic control devices to make trucks safer. The technology would warn truck drivers of hazards they may be unable to see during the course of driving. 

Problematic Megabus Taken Out of Commission

December saw two Megabus crashes in Indiana and a third removed from service following an inspection. The company had another vehicle crash last October. The incidents are calling into question the fitness of the carrier and the safety of its fleet of buses.

The most recent incident involved a bus declared out of service for suspension failure last week. The Chicago-bound Megabus was pulled over for speeding when an Indiana State Trooper noticed that it was leaning to one side. The bus was taken to an inspection facility where inspectors from the Indiana State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division found several serious problems. The Megabus suffered from suspension failure, had a defective emergency exit and a leak in the rear brakes. The suspension system involves air bags running along the sides of the two rear axles. All of the bags on one side were deflated, causing the vehicle to lean. 

What Is Working in Reducing U.S. Auto Deaths

According to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System census numbers, the United States has seen a 25 percent drop in traffic deaths since 2004. The Secretary of the Department of Transportation has stated that the U.S. fatality rate is "at its lowest point ever." In 2013, the country saw 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. The Deputy Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says credit for this belongs largely to the work of law enforcement and his agency's work. The DOT credits federal regulations and regulators. It is clear that improvements have been made. To further those improvements, it is important to analyze what is actually working to reduce highway deaths.

Safety programs designed to decrease the incidence of drunk driving and increase the use of seat belts have helped drive the number of traffic deaths down. Seat belt use is a major factor in increasing the survivability of a car accident. Air bag technology, when it works properly, also helps drivers survive when crashes occur. Finally, the combination of anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control devices, which became mandatory on all light vehicles built after September 2011, has helped reduce fatal accidents in cars, light trucks and vans by more than 15 percent. 

Is the United States Lagging in Auto Safety?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has frequently repeated its goal of eliminating traffic deaths throughout the country. Vision Zero is the term used to describe this admirable goal. Several U.S. cities have adopted traffic safety measures with the stated goal of achieving zero traffic deaths. As a nation, the picture is not so rosy. The numbers for 2013 show just how far away from that goal we are. Nearly 38,000 people died in traffic accidents last year, including more than 4,700 pedestrians.

While achieving zero traffic deaths may seem unrealistic to many, reducing the traffic fatality rate is clearly obtainable. Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany, have traffic fatality rates far below ours. Even after factoring in the differences in population and miles driven, these countries have substantially fewer deaths. While there are many differences in the laws and culture in these countries, there is no reason to think that traffic deaths cannot also be reduced here. 

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