Understanding Air Bag Cases

Airbags are an important part of the safety equipment in modern cars, but when they don’t work correctly serious injuries can result. Maine lawyers who speak to clients injured in automobiles should have a basic knowledge of airbag claims because there are some cases in which pursuing a product liability remedy may be the only way to fully and properly protect the client.

How Airbags Work
Every airbag system includes crash sensors, a control module, and an airbag module. The sensors respond to sudden changes in a vehicle’s speed or direction by sending electrical signals to the control module. The control module, a small computer, receives those signals and, when appropriate, activates an explosive device in the airbag module, which deploys the bags at over 200 mph. The elapsed time from the onset of a crash to full airbag deployment is less than one-tenth of a second.

The earliest airbag systems had a single airbag mounted in the steering wheel. They were designed to protect the driver in a front-end crash. The theory was that if the sensor could identify a crash event from a sudden change in velocity, and if the control module could send a deployment signal, and if the airbag could be inflated fast enough, then the driver would strike the soft airbag and not something harder and more dangerous. This theory has proven viable, and many injuries have been mitigated or avoided. Airbag systems are now standard safety equipment, and protect the driver and other passengers as well.

Problems With Airbags
Two common problems with airbag performance are unwanted deployment and failure to deploy. Lawyers who represent people injured in car crash cases should consider whether a product liability claim related to airbag malfunction might be a source of recovery to an injured client where there is otherwise no insurance coverage or insufficient coverage.

Unwanted Deployment
Unwanted airbag deployment is bad because it can not only cause injuries, but can also cause crashes. This is an important distinction. Airbags were intended to work in response to collision events. In unwanted deployment cases, there is either no collision preceding deployment or the forces involved in the collision are so low that there should be no deployment. If an unwanted deployment occurs at high speed, it can disable the driver and cause a crash, hurting people both inside and outside of the car. These events can appear to be unexplained crashes, as occupants will rarely be certain about what happened.

An unwanted deployment occurred in Maine recently. While driving at low speed in a parking lot, the driver’s airbag in a GM sedan deployed spontaneously. The driver was struck in the face and arm by the deploying bag, suffering fractures of the face and wrist. The bag deployed as a result of an electrical short circuit in the control module, which was located on the floor of the car. Water from wet boots, leaky window seals and other sources soaked the carpeting and eventually leaked through the seals of the control module, corroding and corrupting the electrical circuits. Similar cars were recalled in Canada for exactly this problem, but no recall and no warning was issued in the U.S. The long history of other similar incidents known to the manufacturer made this incident completely avoidable. In another incident several years ago, the driver of a Mitsubishi was exiting her driveway and did no more than blow the horn to say goodbye to family members when her airbag deployed and caused serious arm injuries. Fortunately, these unwanted deployments occurred at low speed.

An example of unwanted deployment causing a crash involved the driver of a Volvo who was knocked unconscious when his airbag deployed spontaneously at normal road speed. He lost control and crashed head-on into oncoming traffic. Incidents like this are sometimes wrongly attributed to driver error because they happen so fast.

Failure To Deploy
Non-deployment can be the proximate cause of injuries and death. These cases are called “enhanced injury” cases because only that part of the injury which could have been prevented by proper deployment, presumably an enhanced injury, is compensable. Any injury that would have resulted from the collision if the airbag had deployed correctly cannot be proximately caused by non-deployment. Clients with brain injuries or serious neck injuries from front-end collisions in cars in which the airbags failed to deploy may benefit from a product liability analysis of their case.

Non-deployment occurs when poor sensor design results in electrical discontinuity between a sensor and the control module. That happened recently to a Maine “snowbird” driving south for the winter. During a head-on collision caused by the other driver, the wire connecting the crash sensor to the control module was severed, so the driver’s airbag did not deploy. This should have been a survivable crash, but the driver died of head injuries and internal bleeding. The product liability settlement in the case was many times greater than the available auto liability coverage.

In January of 2009, Nissan recalled thousands of trucks sold in snow-belt states, including Maine, because the airbag sensors were not properly protected from road salt corrosion. Rather than expose customers to sensor malfunction leading to non-deployment, Nissan recalled the trucks.

Whether they buy a car for commuting to work, taking children to school, or family ski trips, people have come to rely on airbags as standard safety equipment. Vehicle manufacturers have the capacity to design and make airbag systems that work reliably and consistently, and lawyers have the duty and opportunity to hold them accountable when they fail to do so.

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