The death of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin highlights the dangers of confusing technology and what happens when auto companies make innovations that are more harmful than helpful. The actor was found pinned between his own Jeep and a security gate after the Jeep slipped out of gear. It's been revealed that the vehicle was among those already recalled for problems with the electronic shifter. If you own a vehicle with an electronic shifter, this is what you should know about the danger it poses and the manufacturer's liability.

Why are electronic shifters a problem?

The basic design of a regular automotive shifter has been the same for a long time—it requires drivers to move the gear stick to the dedicated slot for the chosen gear and it stays there until the driver moves it back again. Electronic shifters move back to the center position on their own after each shift in gear. This could confuse drivers, who may not realize that they haven't shifted the gear back out of whatever drive it was in and put the auto in park. There are also no safety mechanisms that prevent drivers from getting out of the car when it isn't fully in park. 

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is accused of delaying its response to more than 700 reports that may be related to the issue, including 212 crashes. However, the Jeep Grand Cherokee isn't the only type of auto out there that has these types of electronic shifters. Some Dodge Chargers, Chrysler 300s and Maserati sedans also have the shifter.

Who is responsible for these accidents under the law?

When a product is inherently unsafe, product liability laws typically place the blame for design defects on the manufacturer. In order to have a successful lawsuit, plaintiffs have to prove the following things:

  • The risk of an accident was reasonably foreseeable even if the product was used as intended .
  • The manufacturer could have used an alternative design that would have reduced the risk.
  • It wasn't an economical burden on the manufacturer to do so.

In this case, for example, it's probably reasonable enough to say that alternative designs were available. After all, regular gear shifts were already available. It's also probably going to be fairly easy to show that FCA could have provided some safety measures that would prevent drivers from exiting the vehicles unless the car was in park or turned off.

The biggest dispute may center around whether or not FCA could have anticipated the confusion drivers would have when using the new gear shift, and how quickly they should have realized that there was a problem once reports started coming in.

If you believe that you or someone else was injured because you didn't realize what gear your electronic shifter was in, talk to an attorney like those at Welsh & Welsh PC LLO to discuss the possibility of a case.