Gear Shift Liability Claims on the Rise

May 15, 2017 by

Each time we get into our cars, we follow a certain routine. Some parts of this routine are born of necessity — close the door, buckle up, adjust the mirrors, shift the car gear from park — and some come from habit. For example, we might, without a second thought, shift the car back to park and leave it running to check the mail or run inside quickly, expecting the vehicle to stay put. 

Thanks to changes in automotive technology, though, you may not be able to count on your new vehicle acting as your old cars always did. Redesigned gear-shifting systems are causing serious problems; some vehicles are behaving in ways that drivers don’t expect and shifting gears without warning — sometimes with disastrous consequences.

What Is a Gear Shifter?

Although gear-shifting is one of the most fundamental tasks involved in driving a car, most people probably don’t give the technology inside their gear shifter a second thought. So what’s going on inside a gear shifter?

If you’ve ever shifted gears on a bicycle and seen the chain physically move between different gears, then you understand the basic concept behind gear shifting. Although a car’s gear-shifting system is much more complex and uses a different design called “planetary gearing” (which some bikes actually use too) the idea is the same: you’re using the engine’s power in different ways to match changes in driving conditions.

In a manual transmission, the driver manipulates the gear shifter into different gears (park, reverse, neutral, and the driving gears) and will use it each time the car accelerates or decelerates. In an automatic transmission, the gear shifter is referred to as the “gear selector” because the driver is selecting the overall gear function as opposed to shifting into each one.

On traditional gear shifters, manufacturers clearly label the gears to ensure the driver purposefully selects which gear he or she wants to drive in. This is important, as proper use of the gear shifter is essential to the health and maintenance of a vehicle’s transmission. (Anyone who has accidentally shifted a car into park while moving, for example, can attest to the importance of being in the right gear at the right time.)

With advances in technology, electronics, and design capabilities, engineers are rethinking the ways these gear shifters both look and function in vehicles with automatic transmissions. Notably, car manufacturers are moving away from traditional gear shifters—typically located near the steering wheel or between the driver and passenger seats—to space-saving designs and shifters with better ergonomics.

New Gear Shifter Designs Can Cause Driver Confusion

While aesthetically pleasing, the new gear shifters can cause some driver confusion. For example, the current model of the Toyota Prius has a gear selector that the driver guides through grooves to the selected gear. Once the gear is selected, it goes back to a neutral position and the selected gear is indicated on the dashboard. When a driver wants to park the Prius, he or she must bring the vehicle to a stop and press the park button. Due to the hybrid nature of the Prius, however, it can be difficult to tell whether or not the car is actually parked.

In other cars, drivers use a knob or dial to shift gears; the driver simply turns the dial to the desired gear. Each vehicle has its own system, and they vary much more widely than traditional gear-shifting designs, so drivers may feel some disorientation when driving a new vehicle or switching between vehicles. Because a dial, knob, lever, or button changes the gears instead of the driver using a traditional shifter, drivers may believe their vehicle is in park when it is actually in neutral or drive, and this can lead to accidents, injuries, and even fatalities.

A Second Issue: Electronic Functionality

The electronic functionality of new gear shifters can cause problems because of the way they connect to the car and the software that runs them. If there is a glitch in the software, there is a chance that the gear shifter will not work correctly, sometimes causing accidents and injuries.

Several car manufacturers have experienced problems related to the electronic components in their gear shifters, and some have even had to recall their vehicles. These electronics issues also attracted media attention and scrutiny when “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin died in June 2016 after his Jeep rolled backward and pinned him up against a metal gate at his residence. This happened two months after Jeep announced a recall that affected his vehicle. His family is now suing Fiat Chrysler, the parent company of Jeep.

Though experts have not yet determined whether or not the Jeep’s gear shift defect directly caused the actor’s death, this tragic event highlights several concerns that safety experts have voiced regarding new electronic gear shifter designs.

Vehicle Manufacturers Are Slow to React to Safety Concerns

Unfortunately, car manufacturers often react far too slowly when there is a safety defect in one of their vehicles. Even after consumers file numerous complaints with the manufacturer or the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), it can take years for manufacturers to issue a recall.

For example, Fiat Chrysler started using and selling vehicles with a defective gear shifter (from a third-party supplier) in 2011. Even though the NHTSA had received many complaints by the end of 2013, no recall was issued at that point. In 2014, the car manufacturer began using other gear shifters, but a recall on the defective gear shifters that were phased out in 2014 didn’t happen until April 2016. Eventually, Fiat Chrysler provided a software patch as a solution to the electronic gear shift defect, but lawsuits allege that it did not fully fix the problem.

The long lag time between knowing a defect exists and taking action to inform customers negatively affects millions of people, causing serious injuries and preventable deaths. Drivers are not the only ones at risk, either; other occupants of the vehicles and those who share the roadways and parking lots are also at an increased risk for injury and death due to defective gear shifts.

Hossley Embry: Advocates for the Victims of Auto Accident and Product Defects

As a result of driver confusion and electronics malfunctions, liability claims regarding gear shifters are on the rise. Your safety should be and needs to be the top priority of any car manufacturer. If you think there is a defect in your gear shift or any other part of your car, be sure to notify the NHTSA so they can look into your issue.

If you’ve already been hurt by a defective gear shift or other automotive part, however, you should speak with an experienced member of the legal team at Hossley Embry right away. Our attorneys will thoroughly investigate your auto accident claim, deal with the car manufacturer and insurance companies, and fight to see that you receive the justice and compensation you deserve.

To schedule a free initial consultation today, call our offices at (866) 522-9265 or fill out our convenient contact form. We have resources available (including charter aircraft) to travel throughout the state of Texas and the country on short notice to investigate your potential claim.

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.

Categories: Product Liability