Explains liability in accidents where a car's airbags do not deploy.
How Do Airbags Work?
An airbag assembly consists of the airbag (made of nylon), inflator modules, a sensor housing, electrical connectors (also known as the “clock spring”), the airbag retainer, and the airbag cover. The driver’s side airbag will be mounted in the center of the steering wheel. The passenger airbag will generally be mounted in the top of the dashboard on the passenger side of the vehicle. The clock spring allows the steering wheel to move while maintaining the electrical connection to the inflator module. Crash sensors work with the control module to determine whether the sensed event is a crash and whether the airbag should be deployed. The sensors measure the severity of the vehicle’s impact. A sudden “negative acceleration” will cause the contacts to close, signaling the control module, which then checks for a signal from the rear sensor. The signal from the rear sensor must arrive at the module first for the airbag to deploy. In addition, two sensors must signal a crash before the airbag will deploy. There are two types of sensors: impact (or forward) sensors and safing (or rear) sensors. The forward sensors are located in various locations forward of the passenger compartment, including inside the fenders and on the cowl. The rear sensors, whose function is to determine that a crash has occurred, are located in various portions of the passenger compartment. In a head-on collision, airbags inflate, stopping 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. The current then triggers the release of non-toxic nitrogen gas that causes the airbag to inflate. An airbag will normally deploy at a certain threshold, which is generally twelve to fifteen miles per hour in a frontal collision. The vehicle’s sudden deceleration causes two sensors to send an electrical signal to the diagnostic module, which self-tests to confirm that a crash event is occurring. The module then allows the signal to trigger the airbag deployment. The airbag deployment lasts about 1⁄2 of one second.
In the event that an airbag fails to deploy in an injury-producing crash, the incident should be reported to NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation. There are several factors involved in the activation of an airbag, including the nature of the crash (e.g., speed, other vehicles involved, impact direction); the design of the airbag system, and the location of the crash sensor. A plaintiff who suffers injury resulting from a defective or malfunctioning airbag may maintain an action against the manufacturer, distributor or retailer of the automobile containing the airbag, as well as an action against the airbag manufacturer or distributor. All parties in the chain of distribution, with few exceptions, can be held liable for the defect. A plaintiff may sue based upon a manufacturing defect, a design defect, or failure to warn.
Strict Products Liability in Florida
In Florida, as in most other states, manufacturers of defective products will be held “strictly liable” for injuries caused by those products. There are three types of defect recognized under Florida law: design defects, manufacturing defects, and defects due to a lack of adequate warning or instructions.
In an action against a manufacturer or other entity in the distributive chain for malfunction or improper design of an airbag, the plaintiff must establish the following elements:
• The product is in an unreasonably dangerous condition to the ultimate user or consumer.
• The seller of the product is engaged in the business of selling such product.
• The product is expected to and does reach the consumer without substantial change from the condition in which it was sold.
• The defect proximately caused the plaintiff injury or damages
This exists when a product becomes unreasonably dangerous due to a flaw in how it was made. A manufacturing defect claim exists where the finished product deviates, in terms of construction or quality, from the product as specified or as designed in a manner that renders it unreasonably dangerous.
The elements of a manufacturing defect claim are:
• a manufacturing flaw that renders the product unreasonably
• the defect existed at the time the product left the seller’s hands
• the defect was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries
Failure to Warn
o assert a cause of action for failure to warn of the dangerous propensities of an airbag, a plaintiff must show that a manufacturer failed to provide a warning or instruction and that a manufacturer exercising reasonable care would have provided one concerning a risk, in the light of the likelihood that the product would cause harm of the type for which the claimant seeks damages and in light of the likely seriousness of that harm.
To prevail on a failure to warn claim, the plaintiff must convince the fact finder that:
• the warning provided is unreasonable and thus inadequate
• the inadequate warning was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries
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, but they require a plaintiff to show that: there was a duty of care owed to the plaintiff vis-a-vis the product; the manufacturer breached that duty of care in connection with producing or handling the product; the breach of duty was the proximate cause of the injuries the plaintiff suffered, and 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 when installing it in the plaintiff’s car, causing the airbag to fail to deploy in an accident.
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