Previously on the blog, we’ve covered product liability law and how it relates to many consumer products, among them medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and vehicles. We touched then on the recent highly-publicized GM car recalls, but the issue continues to be in the news; in fact, just yesterday General Motors announced that they were recalling a further 822,000 cars currently on the road–bringing its yearly total to a whopping 60 recalls of approximately 29 million vehicles! How does such a recall get issued? How do they fit into liability law and your legal rights? Let’s explore the issue.

Obviously, car defects are among the most serious in the liability field, since a problem with a vehicle can pose an immense safety risk. Indeed, unlike many other products, a faulty car poses a danger not just to the specific owner, but to others; every occupant of every car on the road can potentially pay the price for a manufacturing defect. That makes the business of vehicle recalls deadly serious, and it’s why recent revelations of incompetence at GM have created such a scandal.

The system that determines when a recall is necessary is that of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. This is a set of guidelines that determines minimum requirements for performance in the parts of a car that pertain to its safe use (think brakes and airbags, not air conditioning or Bluetooth). That said, if a part is found to be faulty in such a way as to pose a risk to motor vehicle safety, the government requires the manufacturer to issue a recall; all the vehicles on the road that contain the defective part are mandatorily taken off the road.

In spite of the fact that these recalls are required by government standards, most of them occur voluntarily, through in-house tests and investigations on the part of the auto manufacturers. Still, sometimes they come about as a result of government investigations, complaints from customers, or–as in the case of the large GM recall–after a series of fatal (and preventable) accidents.

The procedure for a recall is similarly structured by federal requirements: car manufacturers have to inform all registered owners of the car in question via first-class mail that their vehicle has been recalled. At that point, the law requires the automakers to either conduct a repair, a replacement or a refund. However, if a recall is not issued within these parameters, the automaker leaves itself open to class-action lawsuits and other legal disputes; in cases of egregious injuries or wrongful deaths, settlements can be extremely high.

We rely on our vehicle manufacturers to market and sell us safe, reliable vehicles. If flaws are found that compromise this promise, lawmakers have enabled us to hold these manufacturers accountable. It’s just another aspect of liability law that gives citizens the power to avoid being taken advantage of.