Airbag Injuries: Do You Have a Product Liability Case? (2024)

Reviewed By Adam Ramirez, J.D.


Read in 4 mins

Airbags are a mandatory safety feature in modern American passenger vehicles that significantly reduce the chances a driver or front-seat passenger will suffer severe or fatal injuries in an accident. However, airbags can also cause injuries. While some are unavoidable, others result from dangerous design or manufacturing defects. In some cases, victims of airbag injuries may have grounds for a product liability lawsuit.

Before and After Airbags: Injuries and Fatalities on the Road

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 requires all cars, light trucks and vans made in the U.S. after 1998 to include frontal airbags protecting the driver and front passenger. Although it doesn't mandate side airbags specifically, a 2009 law also requires all vehicles to have some form of side protection.

Front airbags cushion a person’s head and chest against impact and reduce the chance of being ejected. Some vehicles have supplemental knee, side, seatbelt and backseat airbags. Modern cars use sensors and algorithms to decide whether to deploy the bag in a given crash and how much force to use (depending on an occupant's weight and whether they are restrained by a seat belt).

Airbags offer the most protection when occupants are wearing safety belts and sitting properly in the seat. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that using an airbag alone reduces the risk of death in frontal crashes by 34% while using an airbag and a lap-and-shoulder seat belt reduces the risk by 61%.

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Types of Airbag Injuries

An airbag uses a chemical reaction to quickly inflate a flexible fabric bag with carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas. They typically deploy at speeds of 100 to 220 miles per hour. Although airbags prevent many deaths, their high deployment speed and explosive mechanics can cause a variety of injuries. Some common airbag-related injuries include:

  • Facial Injuries. Common airbag injuries to the face include fractures, bruises and abrasions. In severe cases, the impact can lead to eye injuries, including retinal detachment or blindness.
  • Chest Injuries. The force of an airbag can result in broken ribs, sternum fractures, airbag bruises and contusions. These injuries can be especially dangerous for children, older adults and those with pre-existing health conditions.
  • Upper Extremity Injuries. Deploying airbags can cause fractures, sprains and dislocations in the arms and hands, especially if the driver’s hands are crossed on the steering wheel (executing a turn).
  • Internal Injuries. Although less common, the impact of an airbag can cause internal bleeding and damage to internal organs.
  • Hearing Damage. The noise of an airbag deploying can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.
  • Asthma Attacks. Deploying airbags can release dust-like particles and gasses in the vehicle's interior (called effluent). Most of this dust consists of cornstarch, French chalk or talcum powder, which may trigger an asthma attack.
  • Chemical Exposure. Some individuals may react poorly to the chemical reactants that trigger airbag inflation.
  • Vehicle Fires. Chemicals used in airbags may increase the risk of explosions and vehicle fires after a crash.
  • Projectiles and Shrapnel. Defective airbags can send explosive shrapnel hurtling into the vehicle.

Most side effects of airbag deployment are minor, but severe injuries and death are possible. Early-model airbags are more dangerous than modern versions, especially for smaller drivers and passengers. Most of the recorded airbag fatalities were children, infants in car seats or elderly individuals.

Recalls of Defective and Dangerous Airbags

There have been numerous airbag recalls related to manufacturing defects or design flaws that pose significant risks to vehicle occupants. Vehicle manufacturers and regulatory agencies closely monitor airbag performance and initiate recalls when they identify defects. Recalls typically involve issues such as improper deployment, software malfunctions or problems with the airbag sensors.

Several massive recalls involving the Takata Corporation have affected tens of millions of vehicles worldwide. The larger recall, which began in 2015, involves the airbag inflators on over 67 million airbags that can rupture explosively and send metal shrapnel into the cabin. This defect has been linked to hundreds of injuries and 23 confirmed deaths. A smaller recall involves a different type of inflator but a similarly explosive potential.

Do I Have a Product Liability Case for Defective Airbags?

Product liability law allows consumers to seek compensation if a defective product causes them injury. A product liability case against an airbag manufacturer might be appropriate under certain circumstances:

  • Defective Design. An airbag’s design may be inherently flawed, making it unreasonably dangerous. For example, poor sensor placement may lead to improper deployment.
  • Manufacturing Defects. Even if an airbag’s design is sound, manufacturing errors can introduce defects. For instance, improper assembly of an inflator may cause the airbag to malfunction.
  • Failure to Warn. Manufacturers are required to provide adequate warnings about the risks associated with their products. If a manufacturer fails to promptly disclose known dangers and take appropriate steps to warn the public, it may be liable for resulting injuries.

Individuals who suffer airbag injuries should consult with an experienced product liability attorney to evaluate their options for pursuing a product liability lawsuit. While airbags save lives, they are not without risks.

Over 14 million new vehicles are sold in the U.S. each year. Problems like defective airbags can be a significant threat to public safety. Product liability lawsuits help ensure manufacturers address defects like these promptly and take swift action to protect consumers.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can an airbag kill you? If you are of a normal height and weight, sitting properly in a vehicle and using your seatbelt properly, it is unlikely. However, children, the elderly, pregnant persons and people of very small stature are more vulnerable to airbag injuries. In some cases, the NHTSA may authorize the installation of an on/off switch or deactivation to mitigate these risks.

  • How long it takes to recover from airbag injuries depends on the type and severity of the injuries, the age and health of the injured person and whether they receive appropriate medical treatment. In most cases, airbag bruises and other minor injuries will heal relatively quickly, but more severe injuries may take longer and you may have permanent scarring.

  • Does an airbag hurt when it deploys? The force of an airbag can impact a vehicle occupant at speeds between 110 mph and 200 mph. However, people have varying pain tolerances, and the adrenaline rush triggered by an accident can reduce a person's perception of pain at the time of an airbag's impact.

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