A seat belt is a safety restraint device required on all cars and light trucks, including pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and vans. It consists of a belt (lap and/or shoulder), retractor and anchors. Most seat belts operate safely and effectively. Between 1975 and 2006, they saved an estimated 226,627 lives, according to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Even so, seat belts can malfunction and cause serious harm or wrongful death. In a recent year, 4,159 vehicle occupants strapped in by seat belts were killed in motor vehicle accidents, according to NHTSA. Another 989,000 occupants were injured. No published NHTSA statistics indicate the actual number of defective seat belts involved in these events. However, we do know that automobile manufacturers have issued more than a thousand safety recalls for seat belts since 1996.
Victims who have been harmed by defective seatbelts often receive compensation in the form of compensatory and/or punitive damages. Personal injury attorneys can evaluate your specific situation, provide you with examples of defective seat belt settlements, and help you determine if you are eligible for compensation.
Seat Belts and Strict Automotive Products Liability Law
Inury due to defective auto parts, including defective seat belts, is viewed in the context of strict liability laws. In cases involving strict liability, the victim does not need to demonstrate negligence on the part of the manufacturer or other liable party; this is a notable difference from other types of tort cases where negligence must be proved. Instead, to receive compensation the victim must show the defective seat belt caused harm and was "unreasonably dangerous."
Defects in seat belts can be traced to a variety of causes, including:
- Design flaws
- Insufficient directions
- Lack of warning labels
- Manufacturing or assembly errors
Any of these are strong arguments for a victim's defective seat belt case.
Injuries caused by wearing a seatbelt usually affect the upper body (head, torso and arms). However, when a seat belt breaks during a car accident or other type of motor vehicle accident, injuries resemble those of an unrestrained vehicle occupant. Serious injuries caused by defective seat belts include:
- Head injuries
- Spinal injuries
- Chest injuries
- Abdominal injuries
- Upper extremity fractures
- Lower extremity fractures
Compensation for Seat Belt Injuries
Compensatory and/or punitive damages can be awarded to victims of defective seat belts. There is a difference between these two types of awards in intent and the way they are determined.
Compensatory damages are meant to reimburse victims for any financial losses caused by defective seat belt injuries, including medical bills, lost income, lost prospects and physical and psychological pain. To determine a value, insurance companies and juries typically use a preset formula and take into account the severity of the injuries.
Punitive damages are used to penalize the liable party and discourage further wrongdoing. Punitive damages are less common but often involve large sums of money.
Defective seat belt cases often end in settlement.
Causes of Seat Belt Failure
A seat belt malfunctions when it fails to safely and effectively restrain a vehicle occupant. Defects known to be at the root of such a failure include flaws in the following:
- Latches or buckles
- Pretensioners (a device meant to lock the seat belt in the event of a crash see sidebar)
- Airbag ECUs (where pretensioners are tied into airbag systems)
- Webbing (a component of the seat belt strap designed to withstand the force of a car accident)
- Anchors (components bolted to the car)
- Seat belt "geometry" (location of seat belt anchor)
- Passive restraint seat belts (the kind that automatically belt you in)
- Door-mounted seat belts (a type of seat belt that has been known to allow occupants to be ejected from the car if the door opens)
If you suspect a defective seat belt contributed to your injuries, an attorney specializing in injury caused by defective products can help you determine if you are eligible for compensation.
When You Might Need a Products Liability Attorney
Unlike the insurance companies that handle minor seat belt injury claims, product liability lawyers work to negotiate larger settlements or obtain court awards for victims who have suffered severe injuries and financial losses. With the assistance of a personal injury attorney, victims have a better chance of settling claims that have been delayed or denied by insurance companies. An attorney with experience handling cases involving defective seat belts can help the victim earn full reimbursement for lost income, lost prospects, medical bills and psychological pain. Or if you have lost a loved one in a defective seatbelt accident, a lawyer to help with fatal injury claims can determine if you have a legal case against those responsible.
The first American automaker to offer seat belts as a factory option was Nash in the 1950 Statesman and Ambassador models.
Nils Bohlin, a Volvo engineer, invented the three-point seat belt in 1958. The three-point seat belt consists of a shoulder belt and a lap belt that buckle low on the side of the hip. The invention has since prevented untold numbers of serious injuries.