An airbag is a complex safety restraint system intended to supplement seat belts in cars, vans, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs). It consists of crash sensors, an electronic control unit (ECU) and airbag modules, which contain inflators and folded bags.
Most airbags operate safely and effectively. According to government statistics, since 1990 they have saved 24,236 lives. Nevertheless, airbag safety cannot be assumed. Some airbags do malfunction and cause serious harm. Between 1990 and 2007, airbag accidents were responsible for the deaths of 284 people, including 180 children, and injuries to countless others.*
People hurt in airbag accidents are often eligible for compensation for medical expenses, pain and suffering, as well as other damages. In addition, the families of those killed due to airbag defects sometimes have grounds to sue for wrongful death.
In this article, you will find information on the legal issues associated with defective airbags. To obtain further information, you will need to contact a personal injury attorney or a wrongful death attorney who can help evaluate your specific situation and determine your legal rights.
Defective Airbag Laws
Strict liability law applies to any automobile accident involving defective airbags and other defective automotive products such as defective tires and defective door latches. To be compensated by an insurance company or court award under this set of principles, a victim or plaintiff must supply evidence from a car or other accidents that proves the airbag contained an "unreasonably dangerous" defect and that the defect caused harm. However, unlike plaintiffs in other personal injury cases, plaintiffs in cases that fall under strict liability (such as those involving defective airbags) do not need to prove negligence on the part of a dealership or manufacturer.
An airbag defect may be a flaw in design, a mistake made during the process of manufacture, assembly or installation or a failure by the manufacturer to provide necessary warning labels and/or sufficient directions in the vehicle's user manual for safe and correct airbag use.
Airbag injuries, which usually are confined to the upper body (head, torso and arms), can be very serious. Traumatic brain injury, for example, is a fairly common injury in defective airbag accidents. Other common airbag-related injuries include:
- Airbag burns
- Hearing loss
- Broken bones
- Asthmatic attacks
In defective airbag cases, the victim may be entitled to two types of compensation: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are meant to reimburse a victim for harm done, including medical expenses, lost income, physical and psychological pain and lost prospects. Insurance companies and juries usually use preset formulas or guidelines as a starting point for coming up with a figure for this type of compensation. After that, they consider, among other things, the severity of injuries and the length of time required for recovery.
In some cases, the courts may award punitive damages, which is an additional (usually quite large) amount of money meant to punish a defendant's extreme wrongdoing or to deter the defendant from further wrongdoing. Rules for punitive damages vary from state to state.
Causes of Airbag Failure
An airbag can malfunction in a variety of ways. It may deploy too forcefully in a low-speed crash, deploy too late or not at all in a moderate- to high-speed crash or deploy unexpectedly when an accident is not occurring. Defects known to be at the root of these mistakes include the following:
- Overpowered inflators
- Untethered airbags
- Inaccurate ECU software
- Outdated technology
- Too few optimally located crash sensors
Other known defects include inadequate venting and improper airbag folding. If you suspect a defective airbag contributed to your injuries, an attorney specializing in personal injury and/or product liability law can help you determine whether you are eligible for compensation.
When You Might Need an Attorney
While insurance companies frequently handle minor airbag injury claims, many situations require expertise that only an experienced attorney can provide. In these circumstances, a products liability/personal injury lawyer can help provide legal advice for injury, determine your rights and facilitate any claims that you might have to compensation, including damages beyond the initial settlement. Any of the following may be grounds for a defective airbag lawsuit:
- The manufacturer's insurance company won't pay the full cost of your medical expenses, lost income, psychological pain and lost prospects.
- The manufacturer's insurance company delays settling a claim. Each state has a statute of limitations for filing strict product liability claims, so beware of allowing insurance claims to drag on too long.
- The manufacturer's insurance company denies a claim.
* Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Airbags are not designed to deploy in low-speed accidents (less than 10-15 mph).
Most states have a statute of limitations for filing defective airbag cases. Depending on the state, the time limit may range from 6 to 12 years from the date of sale by the manufacturer.