Can I Sue if My Car's Airbag Failed to Deploy in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Aug 23, 2017 | 0 Comments

The recent Takata airbag recall has many California car owners concerned.

Twelve deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to the devices, which can deploy with too much force and spray metal and other dangerous materials into the vehicle.

But too much force is not the only problem associate with airbags.

Sometimes an airbag will fail to deploy when it should, either because of a design defect or because it was not installed properly. 

The good news is that California allows plaintiffs to recover for injuries caused by defective products on the basis of "strict liability."

This means the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant was negligent. 

To help you understand when you can sue for an airbag-related injury, our California personal injury lawyers address the following, below:
  1. How do airbags work?
  2. How do airbags cause injuries?
  3. How do I know if my airbag was recalled?
  4. What can I do if I was injured by an airbag?
1. How do airbags work?

Airbags are designed to prevent injury in moderate to severe frontal or near-frontal crashes.

When this type of crash occurs, the airbag system's electronic control unit sends out a signal.

This signal starts a chemical reaction that causes a harmless gas to inflate the frontal airbags in less than 1/20th of a second. Side-impact airbags inflate even more quickly.

Because airbags deploy so rapidly, serious injuries can occur if the occupant is too close to an airbag as it inflates.
That is why manufacturers advise sitting as far back from the steering wheel or dashboard as possible and wearing seat belts.

It is also why young children and infant restraints should not be placed in front of an airbag and why short drivers (4' 6" tall or less) who need to sit close to the wheel should deactivate their airbag.

2. How airbags cause injuries
Despite their relative success rate, there a number of scenarios under which airbags can lead to injuries or even wrongful death.

The most common are:
  • The airbag had a manufacturing defect;
  • The airbag had a design defect;
  • The airbag was improperly installed;
  • The airbag failed to come with proper warning labels;
  • The customer used the airbag improperly; or
  • The airbag was counterfeit or recycled.
Let us take a quick look at each of these scenarios.

2.1. Manufacturing defects
Under California law, companies that manufacture, distribute or sell defective products are strictly liable for injuries caused by such defects when the product is used in a reasonably foreseeable manner.

This means a plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant was negligent in order to prevail in a lawsuit.

To win a lawsuit for an airbag manufacturing defect in California, a plaintiff must prove four things:
  1. That the defendant manufactured, sold or distributed the airbag (or an airbag component)
  2. That the airbag contained a manufacturing defect when it left the defendant's possession;
  3. That the plaintiff was injured while using the airbag in a reasonably foreseeable manner; and
  4. That the defect in the airbag was a substantial factor in causing harm to the plaintiff.
2.2. Design defects
California has two standards for determining whether a product suffers from a design defect:
  1. The product fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner, or
  2. The benefits of the product's design do not outweigh the risk of the dangers inherent in such design.
In California a plaintiff is allowed to introduce evidence of similar accidents involving the same product to establish the existence of a defect.

However, the mere fact that the defendant has issued a recall is not proof of a problem.

Proving a design defect will usually require expert testimony to establish both what happened during the accident and what should have happened.
2.3. Improper installation

For an airbag to work, it must be installed correctly.
Not all body shop personnel are trained in the proper installation of new airbags.

If a body shop (or even a dealer) installs an airbag so that it does not deploy or deploys with too much force, the shop is liable for any resulting injuries.

To be safe, we recommend purchasing a replacement airbag from an authorized dealer and letting them install it.

2.4. Missing or inadequate warning labels
 Federal regulations require vehicles to carry certain warnings about safe airbag usage in the form of either warning labels or audio-visual warning systems.

Many car owners dislike these warnings and remove them.
However, if the owner then sells the vehicle and as a result of the missing warning someone is injured, the seller could be held liable.

2.5. Improper use of an airbag
Vehicle manufacturers and repair shops will often try to avoid liability by claiming that a customer used an airbag improperly.

For instance, they may offer testimony to show that a customer ignored or removed an airbag warning.

But California follows a comparative fault standard of liability.
Comparative fault allows a jury to apportion fault between a plaintiff and one or more defendants.

This means that a plaintiff may still be able to recover damages even if he or she contributed to the injury.

2.6. Counterfeit or recycled airbag
Airbags are not meant to be reused after deployment. Some repair shops cut corners by refolding airbags that have deployed or by installing cheaper, counterfeit bags.

Both counterfeit and recycled airbags carry a high risk of malfunctioning. Problems include non-deployment or the expulsion of metal shrapnel when they do deploy.

To reduce this risk, in 2016 Governor Brown signed into law Assembly Bill No. 2387. The new law makes it a misdemeanor to manufacture, sell, or install a counterfeit or reused airbag or component in California.

If your airbag was replaced by someone other than the vehicle manufacturer, we recommend getting it inspected and, if necessary, replaced.

To do so, contact your vehicle manufacturer's call center. You can find the number online.

The cost of replacing a reused or counterfeit airbag may be covered by your auto insurer.

Or if you purchased with a credit card or from a website (such as eBay) that offers buyer protection you may be protected by that program.

3. How do I know if my airbag was recalled? 

For information on airbag recalls, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's airbag FAQ page
or contact your closest vehicle dealer.

4. What can I do if I was injured by an airbag? 
If you were injured when your airbag deployed or because your airbag failed to deploy in California, you may be entitled to considerable money damages. Contact a California PI attorney who understands the complexities of product liability laws to discuss your options.



About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).


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