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Can a Car Accident Victim Sue a Vehicle Manufacturer if an Airbag Fails to Deploy?

While the number of cars on the road has steadily increased over the past several decades, the rate of fatal accidents has gone down significantly. In large part, this decrease is due to advancements in life-saving technology, most notably, airbags.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), between 1987 and 2017, airbags saved over 50,000 lives. Of course, airbags are only effective when they work correctly. While there are several reasons why an airbag may not deploy, the most common reason is that the airbag was defective.

Reasons Why Airbags May Not Deploy

Airbags are designed to provide drivers and passengers with a soft cushion during a car accident. To do this, an airbag system relies on crash sensors throughout the vehicle. These sensors provide split-second information to a car’s central computer, or electronic controller unit (ECU).

Upon impact, an ECU instantly plugs the data from the crash sensors into an algorithm to determine whether the crash meets the requirements for deployment. If it does, then the ECU deploys one or more airbags. All of this occurs within 15 to 30 milliseconds.

For an airbag to properly deploy, a lot needs to happen in a very short amount of time. Given their complexity and the speed with which they need to deploy, not surprisingly, airbags do not always work. Sometimes, airbags do not deploy at all. Other times airbags deploy too late.

Airbags can fail to deploy for several reasons, including:

  • Malfunctioning crash sensors

  • Damaged wiring or electrical components

  • Defective airbag modules

  • An airbag that was not replaced after a previous collision

In addition, there are certain situations where an airbag does not deploy for reasons unrelated to mechanical defects. For example, the nature of the collision may not trigger the airbag. This may be because the car’s on-board computer records the crash as minor, and assumes the occupant’s seat belt provides sufficient protection.

Another reason why an airbag may not deploy is if the vehicle senses a smaller-framed person or child in the front seat. Similarly, if there is a smaller-framed passenger in the backseat who is too close to the side airbag, the car’s computer will prevent the side-curtain airbags from deploying.

Who Is Responsible When an Airbag Does Not Work?

If a driver or passenger is injured in a motor vehicle accident in which the airbag did not deploy, they may be entitled to monetary compensation through various sources. Of course, if another driver caused the accident, an accident victim can pursue a claim against that party.  However, there may be other claims, as well. One often overlooked claim is a product liability claim against the manufacturer of the vehicle or the manufacturer of the airbag, or both.

Product manufacturers, including those who make vehicles, can be held liable for injuries caused by their products. In most states, manufacturers of defective products can be held strictly liable. Strict liability is a legal theory that imposes liability on a defendant without the requirement that the injured party prove that the defendant was negligent. Thus, under a strict liability theory, a car manufacturer can be held liable for a defective vehicle or component part, even if the manufacturer did not know that the vehicle or part was defective.

Product liability claims are classified into three types: design defect claims, manufacturing defect claims, and failure-to-warn-claims. A design defect occurs when a product’s design is unreasonably dangerous for its intended use. When an accident victim brings a design defect case, they are claiming that all products with the same design are defective. An example of this would be a vehicle with poorly placed crash sensors that failed to assess the forces of an accident adequately.

Manufacturing defect claims arise when a product is defective due to a flaw in how it was made. Unlike a design defect claim, a person bringing a manufacturing defect claim is not arguing that all similarly designed products are defective, only that the product causing their injury was faulty.

Finally, a failure-to-warn claim arises when a product that cannot be used for its intended purpose without being inherently dangerous does not include a warning or instructions to limit the dangers involved.

Proving a product liability case is not always as easy as it may seem. Although an accident victim may not need to establish that a manufacturer was negligent, they still must meet the essential elements of a product liability claim. In the context of a situation where an airbag failed to deploy, an accident victim must prove:

  1. The airbag should have deployed but did not;

  2. The airbag did not deploy due to a defect, either in design or manufacturing; and

  3. The accident victim suffered injuries that were either caused or made worse by the airbag’s failure to deploy.

Proving that an airbag should have deployed, as well as why the airbag did not deploy, typically requires the presentation of an expert witness who can explain to the judge or jury the science behind an airbag failure. Additionally, engineers, accident reconstruction specialists, and medical experts may be necessary to prove that the accident victim’s injuries were caused or worsened by the airbag failure.

Accident victims who believe that their injuries were caused or made worse by an airbag’s failure to deploy should consult with a dedicated personal injury attorney to discuss their options.

Sources:

NHTSA: https://www.nhtsa.gov/equipment/air-bags

IIHS: https://www.iihs.org/topics/airbags

NSC: https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/historical-fatality-trends/deaths-and-rates/

© 2020 by Console and Associates. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 238
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About this Author

Richard Console Personal Injury Attorney Console and Associates Law Firm
Attorney + Principal

Richard P. Console, Jr. is the founder of Console and Associates, P.C., based in Marlton, NJ. He opened his firm to serve one purpose: to help the victims of accidents and injuries at a time when they most need assistance. That guiding principle helped him create a personal injury law firm with a remarkable record of success. The firm handles personal injury claims of all kinds, including motor vehicle accidents, slip and fall injuries, and medical malpractice cases. In over 25 years of practicing personal injury law, the firm’s team of experienced attorneys has helped more than 6,000...

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