On April 24, 2013, Subaru of America, a subsidiary of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., announced a recall of all 2014 model year Subaru Forester automobiles (those built between January and March 2013). This came on the heels of a discovery in Vancouver, Washington in which nearly two dozen Foresters were found to have floor mats that dangerously “curl,” leading to potential interference with clutch, brake and accelerator pedals. The issue gained nationwide notoriety after an announcement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
An NHTSA statement warns that “brake or accelerator pedal interference may result in very high vehicle speeds and make it difficult to stop the vehicle, which could cause a crash.” The same bulletin from the NHTSA explains the backing of the vehicles’ floor mats are not up to proper specification and the resin compound used in their manufacturing can warp and curl under exposure to high temperatures. The Washington Post reports 10,137 automobiles are potentially affected with this flaw.
This comes in the wake of a recall and subsequent class action settlement this past December against the Toyota Motor Corporation, a case litigated by Feldman Shepherd. The problems with these vehicles were similar to Subaru’s in that they were prone to experiencing rapid and unexpected acceleration. We posted an article on this topic in January 2013 under the title “Toyota Settles Class Action Lawsuit for More Than $1 Billion.” Lexus (owned by Toyota) had a similar problem with uncontrollable acceleration and issued a recall after an accident that resulted in the death of a California state trooper and three family members in 2009.
The technology blog Slashgear notes that this recall is the second in a month, with the first occurring on April 9. This one was about 20 times the size of the floor mat recall (involving about 200,000 vehicles) and was due to the possibility of corrosion in brake lines if exposed to salt water. The cars affected in this recall were Subaru Outback and Legacy models manufactured between 2004 and 2009. Before this, Subaru had problems with remote starter fobs that caused vehicles to start unexpectedly.
Subaru has expressed a willingness to replace the affected floor mats in affected vehicles and they are calling the safety campaign WQH-44. They planned to notify owners this spring and instruct those affected to visit the NHTSA’s Vehicle Safety website at www.safercar.gov. To date, Subaru is unaware of any injuries caused by the manufacturing flaw. A company spokesperson explains succinctly that this is “Just us being careful.” Though comforting, the three recalls in a very short period of time cast doubt on Subaru’s commitment to consumer safety.
Moreover, this event forces us to examine the role plaintiffs’ product liability suits have played in protecting Americans from unsafe cars. Often, NHTSA action has been spurred by consumers’ lawsuits and these consumer advocates have historically led the charge to provide individuals with greater transparency and greater accountability on the part of manufacturers and other corporations.