Airbag Injuries and Car Accidents

You may be able to get compensation for an airbag injury. Learn more about what to do after an accident and how much your airbag claim might be worth.

Updated by , J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney (UC Berkeley School of Law)

When a vehicle's airbag deploys during a traffic accident, it comes out of the dashboard at extremely high speed. The airbag will also be hot and likely covered in chemical dust that is part of the airbag's inflation system. Airbags save lives and prevent many car accident injuries, but they can sometimes be the cause of injuries to drivers and passengers.

In this article, we'll discuss:

  • how airbags work
  • what can go wrong when an airbag deploys
  • what to do if you think you were injured by a malfunctioning airbag, and
  • how much an airbag claim might be worth.

How Does an Airbag Work?

An airbag is made from light fabric. The driver's air bag is in the steering wheel, and the passenger's air bag is behind a panel on the dashboard. The driver's air bag is about the size of a large beach ball when fully inflated. The passenger's air bag is typically much larger, because the dashboard is farther away from the passenger than the steering wheel is from the driver. Additional airbags can be located in the vehicle doors, to be deployed in a side-impact crash.

An airbag is connected to a crash sensor, which deploys the airbag when the car gets into a sufficiently severe crash. Severe crashes are usually defined as head-on and near-head-on collisions at any speed above approximately 8 to 10 miles per hour.

In a severe crash, the crash sensor will trigger an igniter to produce a gas, generally nitrogen or argon, to fill the airbag and deploy. The airbag has to deploy in about one-twentieth of a second to offer protection in a collision, which is why the airbag comes out of the steering wheel or dashboard so fast. The airbag will then deflate almost immediately, but the deployment will usually release various kinds of dust and chemicals, which can irritate the eyes and skin.

What Can Go Wrong When an Airbag Deploys?

The most significant deployment error is a malfunction of the crash sensor. A crash sensor failure may cause airbags to:

  • deploy at the wrong time (in a non-crash situation for example, or a fraction of a second too late)
  • partially deploy, or
  • fail to deploy at all during a crash.

Even airbags that function properly can cause serious or fatal injuries if the front seat occupant is very close to the airbag when it deploys. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that drivers sit at least ten inches away from the steering wheel. Babies and small children are particularly vulnerable to airbag injuries, which is why NHTSA says that children under 13 should sit in the back seat.

What Are Common Airbag-Related Injuries?

A malfunctioning crash sensor can cause very serious injuries, even death. But any deployment of an airbag can cause injury. Examples of airbag-related injuries include:

  • bruises
  • abrasions
  • burns
  • fractured ribs
  • eye injuries, and
  • hand, arm, and wrist injuries.

Chemicals released when an airbag deploys can irritate the eyes and lungs and cause asthma attacks.

What Should I Do If I Think an Airbag Malfunctioned?

The most important thing that you can do after a crash is to preserve evidence related to the airbag. Don't throw the airbag or any parts related to it—like the crash sensor—away after the accident. Preserve your vehicle's event data recorder ("black box"). If you can hold off, don't repair or junk your vehicle until you gather evidence to help your car accident claim.

If you suspect an airbag malfunction, you can have the vehicle towed to a reliable and respected mechanic. If you're not sure which mechanic to choose, you can look for one that's been certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. A good mechanic will be able to examine the airbag and its components, including by running diagnostics on sensors and other electronic equipment.

An attorney can advise you on how best to collect and preserve evidence from the mechanic's inspection and from other sources.

Can I Sue for Injuries Caused by an Airbag?

A malfunctioning airbag can give rise to a type of personal injury claim known as "product liability." A product liability claim could arise from malfunctions including:

  • an airbag's failure to deploy during a crash
  • an airbag deploying too late during a crash, or
  • an airbag deploying even though there wasn't a crash.

Typical car accident cases involve proving fault for the accident. Airbag cases are different. In order to win this kind of case, you usually have to prove that some component of the airbag was defective when it left the manufacturer, or that the airbag (or one of its parts) was designed in a way that made it unreasonably dangerous.

Who Could I Sue Over an Airbag Injury?

One question you'll need to answer early in the process is, who are the potential defendants in a product liability lawsuit? You usually have at least three options in airbag injury cases:

  • the automobile manufacturer
  • the airbag manufacturer, and
  • if the car's airbag was inspected, maintained, or replaced after purchase, whoever did the inspection, maintenance, or replacement.

Keep in mind that responsibility for your injuries might be shared among multiple people or companies.

Proving that someone is legally responsible for an airbag malfunction, and for your resulting injuries, will probably be a complicated and time-consuming process. If you're considering a lawsuit—or just want to make sure you have as much support as possible as you negotiate for compensation—you should seriously consider working with an attorney who specializes in product liability claims.

Learn more about how product liability claims work and what you need to prove to succeed with a lawsuit.

How Much Compensation Can I Get for an Airbag Injury?

Let's say you have a good legal argument that you were injured because an airbag was defectively designed, manufactured, or installed in your vehicle. The next step is to figure out how much your airbag claim might be worth. Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. It depends on the costs—financial and otherwise—of your injuries (your "damages," in legal terms) and a variety of other factors that vary widely from case to case.

How Do I Calculate My Damages?

With an airbag malfunction, as with any personal injury case, your damages include both the economic and noneconomic costs you've suffered as a result of the defective product.

Your economic damages include things that can be pretty easily tallied up, like your medical bills and lost wages.

Your noneconomic damages include things like your "pain and suffering." Since these damages are not easily quantified in dollars, they are often estimated using a "multiplier." You start with your economic damages, then multiply that dollar amount (usually by a number between 1.5 and 4) to arrive at your noneconomic damages.

Keep in mind that the multiplier concept isn't used in every case, and at most can give you a rough estimate of what a settlement amount (or jury award) might be.

Learn more about damages in product liability cases.

What Other Factors Influence a Potential Settlement?

The amount of a personal injury settlement—and even whether an accident victim receives a settlement at all—depends on much more than adding up the damages. Other considerations include:

  • The nature and extent of the victim's injuries. Injuries that are easy to see and understand, like broken bones and cuts, generally result in larger settlements than soft-tissue injuries like sprains and strains.
  • The strength of the legal case. For example, how clear is the evidence that the airbag malfunctioned because of a manufacturing error or a design defect that made the airbag unreasonably dangerous?
  • Other factors affecting the case. This includes things that aren't legally relevant, but might matter anyway, like whether the jury has a lot of sympathy for the victim.

How your case might be viewed by a jury will matter long before a potential trial. The company's lawyers will be trying to estimate a likely jury award because it will help them decide how much they're willing to pay to avoid a trial. Similarly, your attorney should be developing a negotiating strategy based on how the company's settlement offer compares to what you're likely to receive after a trial.

Can I Receive Compensation for an Airbag Injury Even If I Was Responsible for the Accident?

You may still be entitled to compensation from the airbag or automobile manufacturer even if you're partially or entirely to blame for the accident.

Under the so-called "crashworthiness doctrine," automobile manufacturers are required to design and build vehicles that can protect the occupants if there's an accident. Safety features like seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock brakes must meet certain standards. If these safety features malfunction or fail, then the manufacturer is responsible for the additional injuries caused by that failure.

So, for example, let's say a driver loses control of a vehicle and hits a telephone pole. The collision was low-speed, and a properly functioning airbag should not have deployed. But the steering wheel airbag malfunctions because of a manufacturing error—it deploys too forcefully and breaks one of the driver's ribs.

The driver would not have suffered that injury if the airbag had functioned properly. So, even though the driver caused the accident, under the crashworthiness doctrine the airbag manufacturer would be responsible for the injuries caused by its faulty product.

Not every state or court follows the crashworthiness doctrine. In states that do, the at-fault driver is still responsible for damages that are unrelated to the defective airbag. For example, if you hit another vehicle and are injured by your airbag, you would still be liable for the other driver's injuries and accident-related losses.

The crashworthiness doctrine applies only when a manufacturing or design defect causes or enhances injuries, which can be very difficult to prove. As we discussed above, sometimes even a properly functioning airbag can cause injuries while protecting vehicle occupants from even greater harm.

If you've been injured by an airbag in an accident that was your fault, you may still be eligible for compensation. An experienced personal injury attorney can talk you through your options.

How Long Do You Have to File a Claim for an Airbag Injury?

Laws called "statutes of limitations" set time limits on your right to file a lawsuit over an airbag injury.

Each state has its own rules, so if you think you've been injured by a defective airbag it's important to know the law in the state where the accident happened. You could have as little as one year, or up to several years, to file a claim.

And remember that the clock doesn't stop ticking just because you're attempting to negotiate a settlement. It's important to keep track of the statute of limitations so you can get your lawsuit filed in time if necessary.

Learn more about time limits for filing a defective product liability claim.

Taking the Next Steps in Your Airbag Injury Claim

Some of the steps we've discussed are things you may feel comfortable handling on your own—for example, getting your car to a mechanic and having the airbag system inspected.

But, if you think you may have been hurt by a defective airbag, you'll almost certainly benefit from at least consulting with an attorney who specializes in personal injury and product liability cases. A good lawyer will be able to help you decide if you have a strong case, or if you're better off accepting a modest settlement (or simply moving on).

An attorney would also be able to assist you with the complex and time-consuming tasks of gathering evidence that the airbag malfunctioned, calculating your damages, and negotiating a fair settlement with a car or airbag manufacturer. An experienced attorney is also much more prepared to advocate for you in court if you end up there.

If you think it would be helpful to consult with an attorney, or are considering hiring one to represent you, you can learn more about finding the right lawyer. You can also use the features on this page to reach an attorney in your area.

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