If Airbags Don’t Deploy in a Car Accident, Is the Car Company Liable?

February 1, 2023 | Attorney, Matthew Dolman
If Airbags Don’t Deploy in a Car Accident, Is the Car Company Liable?

Airbags are a modern safety feature that can prevent serious and fatal car accident injuries. However, they are not designed to deploy in every car accident. In fact, sometimes it is better if airbags do not deploy at all.

An airbag failing to deploy at the right time can be the difference between safety and catastrophic injury that can drastically alter your daily life. If your car airbag fails to deploy in an accident, you may be able to file a lawsuit against the liable parties.

Car airbags are a highly effective safety device. In 2016, frontal airbags in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 2,756 lives. 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 airbags don't deploy in a car accident, is the car company liable? If you suffered severe injuries, you might have a case against the car manufacturer, airbag manufacturer, or other liable parties.

How Airbags Work to Keep You Safe During a Car Accident

Airbags are one of the many safety features included in vehicles to prevent severe injury during a car accident. 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 after 1995 must have dual front airbags.

These airbags protect both the driver and the front-seat passenger. Most new model passenger cars, vans, and light trucks have front and side airbags. Airbags should not replace seatbelts, instead performing in combination with them.

How Frontal and Side Impact Airbags Work During a Car Crash

In a head-on collision, the airbags inflate and stop 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, which triggers the release of non-toxic nitrogen gas that causes the airbag to inflate.

A side airbag inflates during a side impact collision, such as a sideswipe or rollover accident. Side impact sensors are placed on the lower side of a vehicle and detect any impact of 20 miles per hour (MPH) or more. Side-impact airbag deploy speed is faster than front impact airbags because there is less space between the body and the striking object.

How Airbag Mechanics Protect a Driver During a Car Collision

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.

In other words, your airbag should inflate, protect you, and deflate before you are even aware you've been in a car accident. It happens in the blink of an eye to cushion your body from severe car accident impact. However, some airbags malfunctions and do not inflate properly. That can leave a driver or passenger exposed to intense car accident trauma.

Why Would Airbags Sometimes Fail to Deploy?

If an airbag fails to deploy in an injury-producing crash, you should report the incident to the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation. Several factors are involved in activating an airbag, including the nature of the crash (e.g., speed, other vehicles involved, impact direction), the airbag system's design, and the crash sensor's location. Airbags will not deploy in all collisions.

For example, the airbag may not deploy if:

  • The crash impact was not severe enough to trigger the inflation of an airbag. 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, another small-statured person, or no occupant in the right front passenger seat, some advanced frontal airbag systems automatically turn off the one on the passenger side. 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

A defective or malfunctioning airbag cannot provide sufficient protection for drivers and passengers from car accident impact. Whether it is a frontal or side collision, you will not have a cushion to protect you from the trauma and a severe injury can result. On top of an airbag not deploying, there are many other ways a malfunctioning airbag can fail to protect people in an auto wreck.

The following are some of the ways an airbag can malfunction:

  • Airbags may not deploy: Not every accident will cause the airbags to deploy. However, when the collision is sufficiently intense, airbags need to inflate. Even if you are wearing a seat belt, the failure of an airbag to inflate can lead to severe injuries.
  • Airbags accidentally deploy: If your car hits a curb or a large pothole, the airbag may suddenly inflate and cause injuries. In some cases, the driver may lose control of their vehicle and cause a collision because of the accidental deployment.
  • Airbags deploy too aggressively: Airbags help minimize injuries in collisions at higher rates of speed. However, they are more likely to cause injury than safeguard the occupants of the vehicle when deploying in low-speed crashes. Overly aggressive airbags are particularly dangerous for small children and adults of small stature.
  • The airbag explodes: Sometimes, an airbag can deploy so aggressively that it can explode. In 2020, faulty Takata airbag inflators caused many airbag explosions, resulting in at least 250 people injured. The small explosion caused can result in ear, facial, and burn injuries.
  • Your car has unequipped or inadequate side airbags: The federal government does not require side airbags and rollover airbags. However, many cars have side airbags, which help reduce injuries in a side-impact collision. Without them, you will not have the protection of an airbag during a side collision, exposing your body to direct trauma.
  • 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 Car 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 wrongful death. When airbags malfunction, people can be injured in many ways, such as bruises, broken bones, internal bleeding, concussions or other brain injuries, organ damage, or death.

Some severe injuries that can result from an airbag not deploying:

  • Traumatic brain injuries: An airbag not deploying properly can result in your head coming into contact with the dashboard, steering, wheel, or windshield. The high-speed impact into a hard object can result in catastrophic trauma to the brain and can cause a traumatic brain injury. Some types of traumatic brain injuries can include concussions, brain contusions, and coup-contrecoup brain injuries.
  • Facial Injuries: When your car crashes, your face may hit the windshield and receive terrible damage, leaving permanent scarring. 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 Injuries: Airbag failure or malfunction can result in broken bones and soft tissue damage in your chest. Your body can push forward and come into dangerous contact with the steering wheel or dashboard. The trauma may also injure your neck and back, resulting in whiplash, herniated discs, spinal cord damage, sprains, or strains.
  • Arm and Leg Injuries: 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 and may slam into the dashboard. It can result in knee injuries, ligament tears, and leg nerve damage.
  • Other Internal Injuries: Car crash victims often suffer internal injuries, which may go undetected for a number of days following a collision. Fractured ribs sometimes puncture internal organs, such as lungs, liver, or major blood vessels.

What Happens if an Airbag Deploy Failure Injures You?

When an airbag deploys at the wrong time or fails to deploy at all, the vehicle or airbag manufacturer may have legal liability for any injuries that result. You can file a product liability claim with the at-fault party's insurance company for any mistakes made during the design or manufacturing of the defective airbag that cause you to suffer an injury.

There are three legal theories for holding manufacturers liable for airbag-related injuries:

Strict Product Liability for an Airbag Malfunction

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 product manufacturer is liable for damages even if they didn't know about and could not have prevented the defect.

There are three types of defects recognized in the law:

  • Design defects: This is when the product, as designed, is unreasonably dangerous when used for its intended purpose. The designer of a dangerous product can be held liable for designing one that could not be used without causing harm to the consumer or having a significant chance of harming the consumer.
  • Manufacturing defects: This is when a consumer product becomes unreasonably dangerous due to a flaw in how it was made. A mistake in the manufacturing of an airbag can make it malfunction when used. The malfunction can cause severe damage to the consumer and leave the manufacturer liable in a product liability claim.
  • Warning defect: A failure to warn defect is when a product that cannot be used for its intended purpose without being inherently dangerous lacks adequate warnings of those dangers or instructions for proper use of the product. Without warning, a consumer may use the product incorrectly and receive harm from a lack of knowledge of how to use 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.

How Negligence Works in a Product Liability Claim Over a Malfunctioning Airbag

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. They require a plaintiff to show:

  1. There was a duty of care owed to the plaintiff vis-a-vis the product;
  2. The manufacturer, designer, or some other party breached that duty of care in connection with producing or handling the product;
  3. The breach of duty was the proximate cause of the injuries the plaintiff suffered, and
  4. 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 in the plaintiff's car, causing it to fail to deploy in an accident. With the help of your product liability lawyer, you will have to collect evidence to prove negligence caused the malfunction and led to the injury.

Breach of Warranty for an Airbag Malfunction

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:

  1. Express warranty. These warranties contained in the sales contract exist because the seller promised that a product would perform in a certain way.
  2. Implied warranty of merchantability. For a product to have merchantability, it 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.
  3. 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 Florida statute of limitations for product liability lawsuits is four years. It is 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. As with any personal injury incident, collect as much evidence as possible so you can hold the airbag maker, auto manufacturer, or seller responsible for your damages.

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 on your dashboard may indicate a faulty airbag. You should promptly take your car to a dealer or mechanic instead of trying to fix it yourself.

Read your car manual and familiarize yourself with your airbag system. Find out if your vehicle is subject to the huge Takata airbag recall affecting over a million vehicles worldwide. According to automakers, Florida leads the nation in the number of injuries and deaths resulting from 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. The insurance company of an airbag designer, manufacturer, or seller will use insurance adjusters to limit your settlement to keep their profits up.

Seek the help of an experienced car crash attorney 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. They can also handle the tricky negotiation with the insurance company by combating any bad faith tactics used to limit your settlement.

What Damages Can You Seek from a Product Liability Lawyer?

With the help of an experienced product liability lawyer, you can seek compensation for damages caused by a malfunctioning airbag. They can help you collect evidence proving the at-fault party's liability. You can pursue damages caused by the malfunctioning airbag by proving they are liable for damages.

A product liability attorney can help you pursue compensation for damages, such as:

Contact Dolman Law Group for Help With a Product Liability Claim

An airbag not deploying properly could put you at risk of suffering a catastrophic injury that can leave you with intense pain, expensive medical bills, and a long recovery process. If you or a loved one were injured in an auto accident because an airbag deployed incorrectly or did not deploy at all, then you may be able to pursue significant compensation for your injuries and losses.

At Dolman Law Group, our experienced product liability attorneys can offer specialized, legal advice to help you with the claims process. We have the resources and experience to investigate and litigate even the most complex defective airbag matters. We offer our legal counsel on a contingency basis, which means we do not get paid until you recover compensation.

With offices across both Florida coasts, you can easily reach the compassionate personal injury attorneys at Dolman Law Group. Contact us for a free consultation by calling us at (727) 451-6900 or leaving a message on our online contact page.

Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765
(727) 451-6900



Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has successfully fought for more than 11,000 injured clients and acted as lead counsel in more than 1,000 lawsuits. Always on the cutting edge of personal injury law, Matt is actively engaged in complex legal matters, including Suboxone, AFFF, and Ozempic lawsuits.  Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

Learn More