Car accidents are among the most traumatic events a person can experience. They often result in serious physical injuries and sometimes even death. In 2017 there were 402,385 traffic accidents in Florida. The government requires all motor vehicles to have certain safeguards, so as to reduce or prevent serious injuries or fatalities.
Beginning in 1989, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) required all motor vehicles to have passive-restraint systems (seatbelts). Subsequently, NHTSA declared that all vehicles created in 1995 or later are required to have dual front airbags. These airbags are intended to protect both the driver and front seat passenger. Most new model passenger cars, vans, and light trucks are equipped with front airbags and side airbags.
Airbags are a highly effective safety device. In 2016, an estimated 2,756 lives were saved due to the use of frontal airbags in passenger vehicles. You probably trust that traveling in a car equipped with the most up-to-date airbags will keep you and your loved ones safe. However, when airbags fail because of defective design, materials or manufacturing, people may suffer serious or fatal injuries.
If your airbag did not deploy during a crash and you suffered severe injuries, you may have a case against the car manufacturer, airbag manufacturer, or other liable parties.
How Do Airbags Work?
Airbags perform when used in combination with seat belts. They are not intended to replace seat belts.
In a head-on collision, airbags inflate, stopping your upper body from hitting the windshield, steering wheel, and dashboard. When your car hits a solid object, it activates a sensor. The sensor sends out an electric current. The current then triggers the release of non-toxic nitrogen gas that causes the airbag to inflate.
Both frontal and side-impact airbags are generally designed to deploy in moderate to severe crashes and may deploy in even a minor crash. The driver-side airbag ignites and inflates in 20-30 milliseconds, and the passenger bag takes 30 to 40 milliseconds. After deploying, the airbag deflates, to avoid the risk of suffocation.
Why Would Airbags Sometimes Fail to Deploy?
In the event that an airbag fails to deploy in an injury-producing crash, the incident should be reported to NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation.
There are several factors involved in the activation of an airbag, including the nature of the crash (e.g., speed, other vehicles involved, impact direction); the design of the airbag system, and the location of the crash sensor. Airbags are not intended to deploy in all collisions. For example, the airbag may not deploy if:
- The crash impact was not severe enough to trigger inflation of an airbag. By design, airbags are not supposed to fire in minor “fender-benders,” because a seat belt provides sufficient protection and an airbag deployment may do more harm than good.
- When the vehicle detects a child, or another small-statured person, or no occupant in the right front passenger seat, some advanced frontal airbag systems automatically turn off the passenger airbag. This is also true if the system detects a child or small-stature person in the passenger seat who is sitting too close to the side airbag.
- NHTSA recommends that airbags always be replaced promptly after a deployment. However, in a used car, the airbag may not have been replaced after a deployment.
Airbag Defects and Malfunctions That Can Cause Injury
Airbags can malfunction in a number of ways, including:
- Airbags may not deploy. Not every accident will cause the airbags to deploy. However, when the collision is sufficiently intense, it is important for airbags to inflate. Even if you are wearing a seat belt, failure of airbags to inflate can lead to major injuries.
- Airbags accidentally deploy. If your car hits a curb or a large pothole, the airbag may suddenly inflate. This accidental deployment may cause injuries. In some cases, the driver loses control and actually has a collision because of the accidental deployment.
- Airbags deploy too aggressive. Airbags help minimize injuries in collisions at higher rates of speed; they are more likely to cause injury than safeguard the occupants of the vehicle when deploying in low-speed crashes, however. Overly aggressive airbags are particularly dangerous for small children and adults of small stature.
- Your car is not equipped with side airbags, or contains inadequate side airbags. Side airbags and rollover airbags are not required by the federal government. However, many cars are equipped with side airbags, which help to reduce injuries in case of a side impact collision.
- Airbags deploy late. When there are marks on the wheel or dashboard indicating occupant contact, or a bent steering wheel, the airbag may have deployed late. This situation can cause even greater injuries than if the bag had not deployed at all.
Injuries From Airbag Malfunctions
Unfortunately, when a crash occurs, sometimes airbags fail to deploy. In some cases, they can even explode. Such failures may cause the driver or passengers to be at risk for major injuries or possibly death. When airbags malfunction, people can be injured in many ways, such as bruises, broken bones, internal bleeding, concussions or brain injuries, organ damage, or death. Common injuries include:
- Face. When your car crashes, your face may hit the windshield and be terribly damaged, leaving permanent scarring. Also, your face is one of the first body parts to come into contact with the airbag. The bones in your face are fragile, and the force of the airbag can also injure your eyes and lead to temporary or permanent blindness.
- Chest. Airbag failure or malfunction can result in broken bones and soft tissue damage in your chest. It may also injure your neck and back, resulting in whiplash, herniated discs, spinal cord damage, sprains, or strains.
- Arms and legs. In a collision, the same force that causes head injuries can have a similar effect on your arms and legs. Your legs, in particular, usually have little room for movement. Your knees may slam into the dashboard. Your arms may be badly bruised or even broken.
- Other internal injuries. Car crash victims often suffer internal injuries, which may go undetected for a number of days following a collision. The victim may have internal bleeding. Fractured ribs sometimes puncture internal organs, such as lungs, or major blood vessels.
What Happens if an Airbag Deploys, or Fails to Deploy, and Injures You?
When an airbag deploys at the wrong time or fails to deploy at all, the vehicle and/or airbag manufacturer may have legal liability for any injuries that result. There are three legal theories for holding manufacturers liable for airbag-related injuries.
Strict Product Liability
In Florida, as in most other states, manufacturers of defective products will be held “strictly liable” for injuries caused by those products. “Strict liability” means that if a product is defective, and the defect causes injury, then the manufacturer is liable for damages even if the manufacturer didn’t know about and could not have prevented the defect.
There are three types of defect recognized in the law: design defects, manufacturing defects, and defects due to a lack of adequate warning or instructions. A design defect exists when the product, as designed, is unreasonably dangerous when used for its intended purpose. A manufacturing defect exists when a product becomes unreasonably dangerous due to a flaw in how it was made. A warning defect happens when a product that cannot be used for its intended purpose without being inherently dangerous lacks adequate warnings of those dangers and/or instructions for proper use of the product.
In a strict product liability claim against a manufacturer of a defective product such as a malfunctioning airbag, the plaintiff need only show the product was defective when it left the manufacturer’s hands, that the plaintiff used the product as intended, and that the defect caused the plaintiff’s injury. The plaintiff need not prove negligence on the part of the manufacturer.
The victim of a defective airbag might also assert claims for damages under the legal theory of negligence. These claims are slightly harder to prove in product liability cases than strict liability, but they require a plaintiff to show:
- There was a duty of care owed to the plaintiff vis-a-vis the product;
- The manufacturer, designer, or some other party breached that duty of care in connection with producing or handling the product;
- The breach of duty was the proximate cause of the injuries the plaintiff suffered, and
- The plaintiff suffered actual damages due to that breach.
A plaintiff might assert such a claim if, for instance, a mechanic negligently damaged a replacement airbag when installing it in the plaintiff’s car, causing the airbag to fail to deploy in an accident.
Breach of Warranty
A person injured when an airbag deploys incorrectly might also have a claim against a party with whom the person has a direct contractual relationship under a theory of breach of warranty. These are the rarest of the three types of product liability lawsuits.
There are three types of warranties:
- Express warranty. These are warranties either contained in the sales contract, or they exist because the seller promised that a product would perform in a certain way.
- Implied warranty of merchantability. To be merchantable, the product must reasonably perform according to an ordinary buyer’s expectations. It’s an implied warranty, meaning it exists without needing to be written or spoken.
- Implied warranty of fitness. This type of warranty arises when the buyer asks for something intended for a particular purpose, and the seller provides a product for that particular purpose.
The statute of limitations for product liability lawsuits in Florida is four years, subject to a discovery rule which says that the clock on a claim begins to run when the fact of the injury was discovered or should have been discovered.
Airbag Safety Tips
- Airbags are designed for adults of average size. Children should not be in the front seat, even if they are in a child seat. If you put a child under the age of 13, or a person less than 153 cm (slightly over five feet) tall, in the front passenger seat, be sure the front airbag is off.
- Don’t put anything in the car that might interfere with the deployment of the airbag, or that might injure you when the airbag goes off. Watch out for phone holders, magnets, and pictures.
- An airbag warning light in your dashboard may indicate a faulty airbag. Do not try to fix it yourself. Take it to your dealer or mechanic promptly.
- Read your car manual and familiarize yourself with your airbag system. You should understand what your airbags can and can’t do, and where they are located.
- Find out if your vehicle is subject to the huge Takata airbag recall, currently affecting over a million vehicles worldwide. According to automakers, Florida leads the nation in the number of injuries and deaths as a result of defective Takata airbags.
Why You Need to Speak With an Attorney
Auto product liability claims can be extremely complex and difficult to prove. It can be complicated to prove why the airbags did not deploy. You may need experts to examine the car and the airbag mechanism, and to evaluate how and why the airbag failed.
Seek the help of an experienced attorney who is knowledgeable in product liability law. An experienced auto product liability lawyer can advise you of your options and guide you through the complex process of investigating and litigating a product liability lawsuit.
If you or a loved one were injured in an accident because an airbag deployed incorrectly or did not deploy at all, then you have a legal right to recover significant compensation for your injuries and losses.
With offices across both Florida coasts, you can easily reach the compassionate personal injury attorneys at Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA, and Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA, at 833-552-7274 (833-55-CRASH), or contact us online for a free consultation and case evaluation. We have the resources and experience to investigate and litigate even the most complex defective airbag matters.
Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765