If the airbags do not deploy during a car accident, you could have a defective airbag mechanism. You may be able to hold car manufacturers and their suppliers liable for defective airbags.

But liability might also lay with other entities, such as a repair garage or car dealership. Determining liability will depend on what went wrong and who, if anyone, bears the blame.

Here are the important things to note about airbags and the parties you can hold responsible for defective airbags.

How Do Airbags Work?

An airbag system includes four main parts:

The Sensor

The sensor detects a collision. The sensor for the front airbags sits in the front of the car. It generates an electrical signal when the car collides in the direction of the sensor. The front sensors typically only sense head-on collisions, which means that they will not trip during a rear-end or side-impact collision.

Canister

The canister holds sodium azide. This molecule has a sodium atom bonded to three nitrogen atoms. When this molecule ignites, it produces a massive amount of nitrogen gas. The 4.5 ounces of sodium azide in a typical airbag canister can produce enough nitrogen gas to fill nearly 18 gallon-size jugs.

This reaction occurs quickly. The sodium azide in the canister breaks down into sodium and nitrogen gas just 0.03 seconds after ignition.

Igniter

The igniter connects to the sensor. When the sensor detects a collision, it sends an electrical signal to the igniter, which ignites the sodium azide in the canister, causing the airbag to inflate.

Airbag

The airbag collects the nitrogen gas from the canister and inflates. Airbags use nitrogen gas because it does not burn or catch fire.

The airbag would injure you if it just inflated into a hard bag of gas. Within 0.02 seconds after inflating, the airbag begins venting its gas. This deflation cushions your impact and slows your forward motion.

Airbags in Action

The U.S. government has required front airbags in passenger cars since 1998 and in pickup trucks and vans since 1999. Since that time, the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates airbags have saved over 50,000 lives.

But airbags do not always reduce injury. For children riding in car seats or infant carriers, the airbag can do more harm than good. Similarly, inflating airbags might injure short drivers who need to sit close to the steering wheel. 

Many car manufacturers provide switches to deactivate the driver-side or passenger-side airbags in these situations.

In What Ways Do Airbags Malfunctions?

Airbags can malfunction in several ways, which include:

Non-Deployment

Non-deployment occurs when the airbag fails to inflate during a crash that should trigger the airbag sensors. Non-deployment usually happens due to a fault with one of the airbag components or a fault in the deactivation switch.

Late Deployment

Late deployment occurs when the sensor detects a collision, but the airbag fails to deploy until after you have already hit the steering wheel or dashboard. Late deployment usually happens because of a defective igniter or canister.

Premature Deployment

Premature deployment happens when your airbag unexpectedly deploys during driving. Premature deployment can injure you. Surprise and distraction can also cause you to lose control of your vehicle and crash. Premature deployment usually happens because of a faulty sensor.

Explosive Deployment

Explosive deployment happens when the airbag deploys with more force than necessary to inflate. Explosive deployment might cause the airbag to rupture, throwing debris into your eyes and face. 

A ruptured airbag cannot cushion your impact. Explosive deployment usually happens because of a defective canister.

Who Bears Liability for Airbag Malfunctions?

Whether your airbag failed to deploy in a car accident or prematurely deployed when you drove over a speedbump, you may have a legal right to recover compensation from one or more entities.

Auto Manufacturer and Airbag Supplier

When a manufacturer places a product into the stream of commerce, it bears strict liability for any damages caused by defective products. 

“Strict liability” means that the manufacturer’s state of mind in releasing the product has no bearing on the case. A court can hold the manufacturer liable whether the manufacturer was negligent, reckless, or completely unknowing in releasing the defective product.

If an airbag fails to deploy, you can recover compensation from the manufacturer if you prove that the product failed due to a defect. This might require some forensic investigation to identify why the product failed. But if an engineer can identify the defect, you can pursue a product liability lawsuit against the car company.

Product defects fall into three categories:

Design Defect

A product has a design defect if it has no safe use. For example, an airbag designed without vents to allow deflation would have a design defect.

Manufacturing Defect

A product has a manufacturing defect if it deviates from the design in a way that makes it dangerous. For example, an airbag may have a manufacturing defect if the factory put the wrong chemicals in its canister so that it could not deploy.

Warning Defect

A product has a warning defect if it lacks the instructions or warnings necessary to use the product safely.

Repair Garage

If the product had no defect, liability might rest with a repair garage. A repair technician could inadvertently disconnect your airbag or damage the airbag system.

To hold a repair garage liable, you must prove that the technician or the garage was negligent. Negligence occurs when someone fails to exercise reasonable care in fulfilling a duty owed to you. 

A repair technician who damages an airbag or a repair garage that fails to train its technicians to avoid damaging an airbag could bear responsibility for injuries arising from non-deployment of an airbag.

Car Dealership

Everyone involved in the manufacture, distribution, or sale of a product bears some liability if the product causes an injury. You could include a dealership in a product liability claim. You could also assert a negligence claim if the dealership failed to warn you about an airbag recall. 

Finally, the dealership might have liability under a warranty for the vehicle or repairs done to the vehicle.

Recovering Compensation for Airbag Non-Deployment

Sorting through these entities could take some investigation. But once you identify the cause of the non-deployment, you can file a lawsuit against the responsible party to recover fair compensation for your injuries.