When Must A Manufacturer Issue A Recall?

Illustration for article titled When Must A Manufacturer Issue A Recall?

General Motors just recalled more than a million vehicles for an oil leak linked to fires. Your car with an annoying defect hasn’t been recalled yet. Why do some vehicles get recalled while others don’t?


There are several different kinds of recalls, but the one we hear about the most involves safety. If the problem with the automobile involves safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) can order the manufacturer to recall the vehicle and repair it at no charge to the owner.

But what if the defect does not involve safety? Paint is peeling off the car? Not a safety issue. The engine leaks oil and sometimes causes a fire under the hood? That is a safety issue. Seat upholstery comes undone over time? Not safety. The car randomly stalls? Safety. The car cheated on an emissions test? Not safety.

These recall processes can even apply to cars that are out of warranty. So if your car springs an oil leak - or might - and other cars like it are springing oil leaks, you might get a free fix. GM just announced the recall of 1.4 million vehicles dating back to 1997 for this problem. This is good news for you if you have one of these vehicles.

Interestingly, this defect has already been the subject of recalls but the first attempts at repair didn’t work. 1,300 of these vehicle caught fire AFTER they had been “repaired” under previous recalls. Clearly, GM is having a problem with this one.

I got a free set of tires for one of my Explorers back in the day when that Bridgestone/Firestone fiasco happened. I was in the market at the time so it saved me a bunch of money. And I didn’t even have to roll my truck to get them.

In the old days, all you could do was sit around and wonder if your vehicle was the subject of a recall. Now, you can go online and find out all kinds of neat stuff. Like if your car is subject to a recall and even if it has had all its recall work performed. That’s a handy one if you are buying a used car. Visit NHTSA’s website and see our tax dollars being used wisely for once.


Despite Volkswagen’s cheating scandal, we haven’t seen a recall, likely because the company hasn’t quite figured out a fix yet. Because that deals with emissions, it would fall under the umbrella of the Environmental Protection Agency. They can order a recall to make vehicles conform to their standards but those are not usually done with the same urgency of the NHTSA safety recalls. Apparently, the EPA’s process is a bit more cumbersome than NHTSA’s.

But trust me; there are attorneys somewhere trying to figure out a way to make it safety-related. It does involve a violation of federal law and non-compliance with said law will result in VW taking some sort of EPA-mandated action. But the cars do not appear to be unsafe at this point, according to the rules of NHTSA.


Often you’ll hear of carmakers doing voluntary recalls. This is because they know the recall will be or could be mandated by NHTSA and it will look better if they go ahead and do it voluntarily without having to be ordered to do it. The whole convoluted process is explained here.

Meanwhile, if your car has what appears to be a safety-related defect, check the NHTSA site. If it is not listed there, file a complaint. Sometimes these recalls are triggered when there are enough complaints about a safety related issue. Who knows? Your complaint might be the one that pushes the issue from a random one into one mandating the recall.


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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 24 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.


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I’m pretty sure the exact process and formula has been covered in Fight Club.