Donald MacPherson was driving along in his Buick at 8 MPH when something went horribly wrong with one of the wheels and he crashed. Because of the lawsuit he filed, your car and every other car built since 1918 is safer.
Lawyers and law students often study old cases to find out how the laws evolved to what they are today. One of the cases I remember most fondly from law school involved a car: MacPherson v Buick. The case was heard in New York in 1916 and every lawyer has heard of it at one time or another.
MacPherson bought a 1908 Buick Runabout automobile from a dealer. Not long after he bought it, he was driving along and a few of the wooden spokes in one of the wheels snapped. We get our facts from the court opinion, and there it is said there was no question: The spokes snapped because the wheel was made from "defective wood." So, even though he was only traveling at 8 MPH, MacPherson was thrown from the car and "injured."
The court opinion does not tell us everything about the case but we know that MacPherson sued Buick. We can safely guess that he had complained to the obvious parties and gotten nowhere because, at the time, a lawsuit against Buick was considered a loser. Why? Because Buick raised a whole host of arguments, all of which were considered rock solid at the time.
- They didn't sell the Buick to MacPherson; a dealer did.
- They didn't make the wheel; a supplier did.
They thought MacPherson ought to be suing either the dealer or the supplier, but certainly not them.
MacPherson argued that the duty would not lie with the seller of the vehicle, nor the supplier of the parts, but with the manufacturer. After all, they were the ones who put the thing together. Wouldn't they be the ones in the best position to prevent something like this from happening?
The defendants, as they are wont to do, raised all manner of objections and even, apparently, suggested it was the job of the end user to thoroughly inspect the vehicle himself so as to not be injured by it when it breaks down. While we often talk about carefully inspecting used cars these days and even giving a new car a test drive, Buick was suggesting that every NEW car should likewise be vigorously inspected for latent safety hazards.
The court declined to accept that argument and Judge Benjamin Cardozo famously wrote:
If the nature of a thing is such that it is reasonably certain to place life and limb in peril when negligently made, it is then a thing of danger. Its nature gives warning of the consequences to be expected. If to the element of danger there is added knowledge that the thing will be used by persons other than the purchaser, and used without new tests, then, irrespective of contract, the manufacturer of this thing of danger is under a duty to make it carefully.
When he wrote that, he was a jurist on the Court of Appeals of New York. This also explains why this is a 1916 case but involved a 1908 auto. There had been a trial and then an appeal and this case — where Cardozo wrote the opinion — is an even higher appeal. Cardozo would become renowned for his opinions. Later, he would be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cardozo also saw how dangerous automobiles could become. While it is easy for us to imagine an auto as potentially a "thing of danger," we have the benefit of knowing about GM ignition switches, Ford Pintos, and Takata airbags. The 1908 Buick Cardozo was writing about was apparently only capable of 50 miles per hour, seated 3 people and it had wooden spoke wheels. When it was built, remote manufacturers could not be sued for defective products they sold through others. After this case, they could be held liable.
The law evolved over the years, as did the auto industry. Manufacturers stepped up and began offering warranties to the consumer, even though the manufacturer was not selling the vehicles directly to the consumer. Now we have lemon laws and product liability laws which speak to the manufacturer. These lines of jurisprudence can be traced back to Donald MacPherson and the accident he had in his 1908 Buick Runabout.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible. He also wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation. You can hear his podcast Lehto's Law on iTunes here.
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Photo Credit: Getty Images, not of the actual crash. Still, cool picture.