Personal Injury Primer: Airbags and the Potential for Injury

Airbags were mandated in all cars and light trucks in the United States in 1998 (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991).  Studies show that overall, airbags decrease injury rates and save lives.  In particular, air bags minimize the risk of life-threatening injuries to an occupant’s head, neck, face, chest, and abdomen.  However, they also can cause minor to major injuries, including death.

Minor injuries caused by airbag deployment may include skin/throat irritation, abrasions, bruising, lacerations and strains and sprains.  Major injuries may include cardiac (heart) damage, burns, eye injury, ear trauma or hearing loss, internal organ bruises and/or bleeding, damage to major blood vessels, bone fractures, brain trauma/concussion, spinal injury, and fetal trauma.

What to look for in the medical records when airbag injury is suspected or diagnosed:

  • Emergency room photos of soft tissue injuries, including burns, cuts, skin tears and lacerations
  • Xrays of bones to diagnose fractures
  • Chest x-ray to diagnose lung trauma
  • Cat scan and/or MRI of head to diagnose traumatic brain injury, eyes and/or optic nerve injury, ears and/or auditory nerve injury
  • Cat scan and/or MRI of chest to diagnose heart vessel damage, liver or spleen damage, injury to cartilage, muscles, and tendons
  • Cat scan and/or MRI of pelvis to diagnose traumatic soft tissue injury, injury to cartilage, muscles, and tendons
  • Cat scan and/or MRI of the spine to diagnose disc herniation
  • Ultrasound studies of internal organs
  • Laboratory studies: Hematocrit/hemoglobin to confirm bleeding; white blood count to demonstrate stress/trauma; Pro-Calcitonin and C reactive protein to confirm stress/trauma, Creatinine/blood urea nitrogen to diagnose kidney injury, pancreatic enzymes to diagnose other internal organ injury, liver enzymes to diagnose liver injury, cardiac enzymes to diagnose cardiac injury
  • Capillary oxygen for suspected trauma to the respiratory system

Unfortunately, serious injury can be caused by a properly deployed airbag.  Airbags must inflate quickly to be effective in an accident.  The speed and force of the airbag can cause injuries regardless of whether it malfunctioned or not.  One factor in airbag injuries is the distance from the occupant to the airbag when it is deployed.  If someone is leaning close to the steering wheel when the airbag is deployed, the force of deployment can cause serious injuries or even death.  Another factor in airbag injury is the use of a seatbelt:  one source notes that 80% of passengers killed by an airbag were not wearing a seatbelt.  Additionally, children or persons of shorter stature are at higher risk for airbag injury.

A personal injury claim for injuries caused by an airbag is only valid if the airbag malfunctioned.  If injury occurred simply as a result of an airbag’s deployment or failure to deploy, there is no claim for negligence.  If you suspect an airbag injury is due to a malfunctioning airbag, it is important to have access to your car’s computer, the airbag and all of its components to prove that it was faulty.