Product safety and liability

Safety and environmental

What are the most relevant automotive-related product compliance safety and environmental regulations, and how are they enforced? Are there specific rules for product recalls?

The UK regime for the type-approval of vehicles is set out in the UK Framework Regulation (Regulation (EU) 2018/858 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2018 on the approval and market surveillance of motor vehicles and their trailers, and of systems, components and separate technical units intended for such vehicles, amending Regulations (EC) No. 715/2007 and (EC) No. 595/2009 and repealing Directive 2007/46/EC (Text with EEA relevance) ( and the Road Vehicles (Approval) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/818).  

The UK Framework Regulation prescribes a series of technical standards (including requirements relating to vehicle emissions) for road vehicles and their component parts, systems and separate technical units intended for such vehicles, which must be met before type approval can be obtained. The UK type approval authority has powers to withdraw or suspend type approvals where vehicles are found not to conform to the approved type, or where the vehicle is found to present a serious risk to health, safety, the environment or other public interests. It can also refuse to recognise type approvals where it finds that a type-approval does not comply with the UK Framework Regulation.

Product recalls and other corrective actions are an important concern for the automotive industry in the UK. The competent authority, the DVSA, is an active regulator, and manufacturers carrying out corrective actions are often subject to ongoing reporting obligations. Recalls can be required under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 (where the product is unsafe or dangerous) or under the UK Framework Regulation (where the recall is due to a non-conformity with the Regulation, including emissions requirements, or a serious risk to the health or safety of persons, the environment or to other aspects of the protection of public interests). The UK authorities have also published a Code of Practice on vehicle safety defects and recalls, and a manufacturer’s guide to recalls in the automotive sector, which (while not strictly mandatory) are generally regarded as authoritative. A separate Code of Practice, and a Guide, exist for recalls in the vehicle aftermarket.

Despite the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, UK authorities also continue to work closely with EU member state authorities in relation to type approvals and recalls. The UK Framework Regulation continues to require UK authorities to make notifications to other member states and to the Commission (all references to 'Member States' in the UK Framework Regulation are defined to include the UK). The scope of the UK’s continued cooperation with EU authorities on safety and standards is set out in the Annex on Motor Vehicles to the UK-EU TCA. 

Once a vehicle has been authorised for use on public roads in the UK, drivers must also comply with various vehicle safety provisions to ensure that the vehicle is operated in a manner that does not pose a danger to the general public (including the requirement for a driver to always be in a position to have full control of the vehicle, a full view of the road and traffic ahead, and a motor vehicle to be attended by a person who is licensed to drive it unless the engine is switched off and the parking brake is applied). Most vehicles are required to pass a Ministry of Transport test of vehicle safety, roadworthiness and emissions on a regular basis.

Product liability and recall

Describe the significance of product liability law, and any key issues specifically relevant to the automotive industry. How relevant are class actions or other consumer litigation in product liability, product recall cases, or other contexts relating to the automotive industry?

Product liability cases in the UK automotive industry are generally brought by consumers under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which implemented the EU Product Liability Directive 85/374/EEC.

Group litigation is also highly relevant and topical for the automotive industry, particularly in the context of consumer claims in respect of diesel vehicles that are alleged to have 'defeat devices'. Claims have been brought and are ongoing against a number of manufacturers, dealers and automotive finance companies.  

The UK has an ‘opt-in’ collective action system for product litigation (rather than a US-style opt-out 'class action') and punitive damages are not available. However, group actions are still a considerable threat (and claimant firms are very active in the automotive sector, particularly around diesel claims and other product claims), so companies operating in the sector should be aware of this risk.

Developments in the automotive industry, such as the increasing prominence of hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles and connected vehicles, and the emergence of autonomous driving systems, will also impact the liability landscape in the UK.