United States v. General Motors (Defective Quadrajet Carburetors)

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

United States District Court, District of Columbia.

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff.





William T. COLEMAN et al., Defendants.

Civ. Nos. 75-0049 and 75-0047.

July 23, 1976.

United States brought enforcement proceedings seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 arising out of automobile manufacturer’s refusal to notify and warn owners of certain automobiles equipped with defective carburetor. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia, June L. Green, J., held that Government made out prima facie case of “defect” by showing significant number of failures in past performance of carburetor, that carburetor was a safety defect, regardless of absence of proof of harm which might occur in the future, and that in view of size of business, gravity of violation, and lack of mitigating circumstances, civil penalty of $400,000 would be imposed upon automobile manufacturer.

Ordered accordingly.

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Motor Vehicle Safety (Studies)

(28) In California alone, approximately 100 people per year are killed as a result of vehicle disablement whether they remain in the vehicle or walk to get assistance. Vehicle disablement Study, April 1974, prepared for NHTSA, U. S. Department of Transportation.manner that the public is protected against unreasonable risk of accidents occurring as a result of the design, construction or performance of motor vehicles and is also protected against unreasonable risk of death or injury to persons in the event accidents do occur, and includes nonoperational safety of such vehicles. 15 U.S.C. § 1391(1).

(29) on the Interstate System approximately 3.5 per cent of all vehicle collisions involve parked cars on the shoulder of the highway. “Fatal Accidents on Completed Sections of the Interstate Highway System, 1968.” Public Roads, Vol. 35, No. 10, October, 1969.


Based on the foregoing, the Court determines as its Conclusions of Law the matters set forth below:


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(5) “Motor vehicle safety,” as defined by the Safety Act, means:

(T)he performance of motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment in such a

(6) It is not necessary that a collision or death has occurred or will occur as a result of the defect. The purpose of the Act is to provide owners with an adequate margin of safety to protect against vehicle failures, which are in and of themselves an accident under the Act, and which result in an unreasonable risk of personal or property damage. See 15 U.S.C. § 1401(a)(3)(B), as amended, S.Rep.No.1301, 89th Cong.; 2d Sess. 5 (1966) at 3, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1966, p. 2709, United States v. General Motors Corp. (“Wheels”), supra, at 435.

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(8) Even if this “defect” were not per se related to “motor vehicle safety,” the uncontested facts of this case establish that fuel inlet plug failure results in several obvious and undeniable safety hazards. First, once the plug fails, the car “will stop running.” The driver must then either abandon his vehicle in the midst of oncoming traffic or, if he can, pull over to the side of the road. Both situations are dangerous.


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(9) It is, therefore, plain that the Rochester Quadrajet carburetor is a safety defect because the public, by the fact of this defect’s existence, is not protected “against unreasonable risk of accidents (or) * * * death or injury” in the event of such accidents. 15 U.S.C. § 1391(1). Cf. Larsen v. General Motors Corporation, 391 F.2d 495, 505-506 (8th Cir. 1968).

(10) While proof of actual harm is neither sought nor demanded by the Safety Act, the uncontested facts of this case establish that failure of the Quadrajet’s fuel inlet plug has resulted in clear safety hazards and injury. Therefore, no material issue of fact exists as to the number of accidents and injuries which may occur in the future. It suffices that the “defect” exists at present and its occurrence poses an unreasonable risk of accident, death, or injury.

(11) In these circumstances, considering “the size of the business,” “the gravity of the violation” (15 U.S.C. § 1398(b)), and the lack of mitigating circumstances, a civil penalty of $400,000, in consequence of General Motors’ having failed to provide notification and “fair warning” of this safety defect is both warranted and appropriate.