Defective Airbags Lawyer
Phillips Law Group
Since their introduction, automobile airbags have saved lives and reduced injuries in collisions. Unfortunately, manufacturing defects in these devices have also led to numerous deaths and injuries. Looking at cases of defective airbags provides insights into product liability law and may help you cope if your vehicle’s airbag system fails.
A Lifesaving Technology
In 1998, federal law required airbags for every new automobile sold in the United States. Airbags were a way to reduce injuries in frontal collisions. Without these devices, the laws of physics force the heads of front-seat occupants into the steering wheel or dashboard. Facial lacerations and traumatic brain injuries were typical results of this motion. Fractions of a second later, many front-seat occupants found their upper torso and heads flung backward — triggering the classic whiplash injury.
Front-mounted airbags — on the steering wheel for the driver and the dashboard for the front passenger — helped mitigate both types of injuries. Modern airbags deploy when their sensors detect a collision exceeding 10 miles per hour. Full deployment happens within 1/25th of a second, far quicker than an eyeblink. Perforations in the bags allow for slow deflation. This deflation in turn creates an energy-absorbing cushion for passengers.
Following the success of front-mounted airbags, manufacturers added side-mounted units to protect passengers’ torsos and feet. The dawn of the 21st century brought a substantial leap forward with side curtain airbags. These bags deploy downward from a vehicle’s roof, filling the space between passengers’ heads and side windows. Curtain airbags markedly reduce the severity of injuries from T-bone collisions.
Worldwide, airbags have saved thousands of lives and headed off even more injuries. While simple in principle, airbags are highly complex devices with many parts. Beginning in 2009, this complexity led to tragedy. Read on to learn more about the tragic impact of defective airbags.
Excessive Deployment Force
No automaker manufactures the airbags installed in their vehicles. Instead, subcontractors build the units and ship the devices to the automaker’s assembly centers. One such subcontractor was Japan’s Takata Corporation. Originally a seatbelt manufacturer, Takata moved into airbag manufacturing and supplied units to nearly all of the world’s automakers.
In 2009, an eighteen-year-old Oklahoma woman driving a Honda Accord became involved in a low-speed collision. When the Takata airbag in her vehicle inflated, the unit propelled component debris into the woman’s neck. With a major artery severed, the driver’s injuries proved fatal. The woman’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Takata, won a quick settlement, and established a charitable foundation to honor the victim’s memory.
Unfortunately, the Oklahoma incident was not a fluke. Since 2009, shrapnel-throwing Takata airbags have claimed at least 20 more lives and caused hundreds of injuries. By 2013, Honda — under pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — began recalls of vehicles with Takata airbags.
A Record-Setting Recall
Within months, Honda expanded its recall. Soon after, nearly every other automaker followed suit. With more than 50 million vehicles involved, the Takata airbag debacle led to the largest recall in automotive history.
While every manufacturer marketed vehicles with Takata airbags, most of the injury-causing incidents occurred in Honda automobiles. Typically, this situation would cause much of the liability to fall on Honda’s corporate shoulders. Actions by the United States Department of Justice would alter the playing field.
In January 2017, Takata pled guilty to federal wire fraud charges, admitting to misrepresenting quality-control efforts in communications with Honda and other automakers. While apportioning fault in multi-party personal injury cases is often difficult, a criminal conviction enormously shifts this burden.
During the ongoing civil and criminal litigation, Takata set aside a compensation fund. Nevertheless, personal injury lawsuits, wrongful death actions, and criminal penalties quickly swamped the component manufacturer. In June 2017, Takata filed for bankruptcy, leading to an acquisition by a Chinese competitor. Takata’s court-supervised reorganization created the Takata Airbag Individual Restitution Fund to handle future personal injury claims.
Those claims are likely to continue. Worldwide, millions of vehicles with suspected Takata airbags still take the road every day. As of July 2022, Honda documented replacements for 80 percent of the recalled airbags.
Takata’s defective airbags inflated with excessive force, propelling shrapnel around the passenger area. Injuries also ensue when airbags fail to inflate after a collision. With multiple airbags in each vehicle, automakers equip every vehicle with an airbag control unit. The ACU’s mission is to monitor the multiple collision sensors arrayed through the vehicle and deploy the airbags to protect the occupants.
The split-second deployment order of airbags may change depending on the direction of a collision. If an ACU malfunctions, vehicle occupants suffer the violence of a collision without airbag protection.
Lawyers representing a group of families allege the ACUs produced by German-based manufacturer ZF-TRW failed to deploy in collisions, directly causing at least eight deaths. The plaintiffs have also filed suit against six automakers who used ZF-TRW bags: Honda, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, and Kia.
The ZF-TRW case illustrates the complexity of product liability cases and the difficulty of sorting out which parties bear fault. To pile further complexity on this case, ZF-TRW now argues that one of its subcontractors, STMicro, also bears fault for ACU failure. While the case proceeds, the NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation continues its probe.
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