The Danger of Defective Air Bags

Air bags that are properly manufactured and installed can save lives. However, defectively manufactured air bags can cause undue harm to car occupants, and individuals who have suffered injuries as a result of an air bag defect may have a products liability claim against the automobile manufacturer.
Products Liability Claims Based on Defective Air Bags
Often, products liability law allows an individual who has been injured by a defective product to hold the manufacturer of the defective product liable for the injuries. Specifically, a manufacturer may be liable for a product defect under any one of three legal theories:
  1. Manufacturing defect – manufacturer departed from the design plan and one or more of the products was made improperly
  2. Design defect – the entire product line was designed poorly
  3. Failure to warn – a dangerous product was sold with an inadequate warning
Accordingly, an automobile manufacturer may be held liable for injuries caused by a defective airbag under a theory of products liability, if the air bag was defectively manufactured, defectively designed or inadequately labeled.
In one design defect case, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held Toyota Motor Corporation liable under a theory of products liability, where the driver’s air bag in the plaintiff’s 1994 Toyota Corolla deployed in a high speed collision. In that case, the court reasoned that the injured driver had successfully met her burden under a two-part test applied in design defect cases, if she could establish that:
  1. The air bag failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect it to when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner, or
  2. The air bag’s design proximately caused the injury, and the manufacturer fails to establish that the benefits of the air bag’s design outweigh its inherent risk of danger.
Air Bag Defects and Injuries
In conjunction with the aforementioned products liability defect theories, some of the defects associated with air bags include:
  • Inadequate warnings
  • Air bags which deploy with excessive force and speed
  • Oversized air bags that come too close to car occupants during inflation
  • Unnecessary deployment of air bags in low-speed accidents
  • Malfunction of air bag systems due to a problem in the electrical system or sensors
  • Failure of total deployment caused by defective sensors or improper placement of sensors
Air bags with defects like these can cause severe head injuries, blindness, brain damage, and even death by decapitation. The passengers who most commonly suffer injuries caused by defective air bags are children and women of small stature.
NHTSA and Air Bag Legislation

Federal law mandates that manufacturers must remedy auto safety problems at no cost to the consumer. Accordingly, the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) studies real-world crashes and publishes lists of auto safety recalls to alert consumers about safety problems.

In response to increasing concerns and injuries related to defective air bags, NHTSA has explored several measures for reducing the dangers associated with air bags. One NHTSA proposal that has taken effect is a measure that allows consumers in a certain risk group to choose to have an “on-off” switch installed for the air bags in their vehicle. An on-off switch allows an air bag to be turned on and off manually, and is available for people in the following risk groups:
  • Drivers who must transport infants and/or children 12 years of age and under in the front passenger seat
  • Drivers who cannot change their driving position to keep 10 inches between them and the steering wheel
  • Drivers with special medical conditions