Bad Airbags and the “Crashworthiness” Doctrine


One of the biggest stories in the news recently is that millions of cars have faulty airbags. If these airbags go off in a crash, they (reportedly) act more like a grenade than a life-saving device, and send metal shrapnel flying around the inside of the car. Florida Senator Bill Nelson has urged action on a recall. Lawsuits have already begun.

What Happens if You Are Injured by a Defective Airbag if the Accident is Your (or Partially Your) Fault?

Let’s say you’re running late for work. It’s raining. You’re checking emails on your phone while driving, and all of a sudden the car in front of you stops. You look up just in time to see tail lights. Your airbag goes off, unleashing a metal shard that (I’m leaving out the gory details) leaves you blind in one eye.

Pretty terrible stuff.

Under a law passed by the Florida Legislature, the manufacturer of the defective airbag is able to blame you for injuries caused by their bad airbag.

The police investigate the accident and determine it to be your fault. Fortunately the driver of the car you hit is ok, and your auto insurance fixes his car. But what about your eye? Is that your fault too? Since 2011 it very well could be. Under a law passed by the Florida Legislature in 2011, the manufacturer of the defective airbag is able to blame you for their bad airbag.

The “Crashworthiness” doctrine:

Before we get into the law, let’s analyze your accident a little closer. Although there was one “accident” there were actually two collisions:

  1. Your car hitting the car in front of you;
  2.  The airbag slinging a metal shard into your eye.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? You should take responsibility for hitting the car in front of you, and any of your injuries that came from that (sore neck, back, etc.), while the airbag manufacturer should take responsibility for putting your eye out with a piece of shrapnel.

So you sue the airbag manufacturer. But here’s the question: even though you sued the company that made the airbag for putting out your eye (collision #2), should the jury still be able to consider the fact that you caused the accident (collision #1) that led to the airbag going off, and say you are partially to blame? Here’s how Florida law handles this:

Before 2001:

Up until 2011, there was only one Florida appellate case that dealt with this issue, Kidron v. Carmona, 665 So.2d 289 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995) which held that:

“the fault of the defendant [manufacturer] and of the plaintiff should be compared with each other with respect to all damages and injuries for which the conduct of each party is a cause in fact and proximate cause.”

In other words, the jury should be able to consider the initial cause of the accident and place blame accordingly. If the jury found that you were 50% at fault for your injuries, the amount of the verdict would be reduced by 50%. The majority of states follow this approach.

2001 – D’Amario v. Ford:

In 2001, the Florida Supreme Court decided D’Amario v. Ford, 806 So.2d 424 (Fla. 2001). In that case, the court held that the two collisions should be separated, and the jury should not be able to consider the initial cause of the accident or who was at fault for it. The only thing the jury should consider is whether the second collision (the piece of metal putting out your eye) was the fault of the airbag manufacturer.

In essence, the court said that the case against the airbag manufacturer was a completely separate issue from the actual car accident, because even though the second collision couldn’t have happened without the first, the airbag manufacturer should be the only party liable for enhancing the typical injuries of an accident, or for causing entirely new injuries. This meant that in a trial against an airbag manufacturer for putting your eye out, the jury wouldn’t hear any evidence about how the collision happened, or whether or not it was your fault.

2011 – Meet the New Law, Same as the Old Law:

In 2011 the Florida Legislature enacted a “fix” to the D’Amario case – Senate Bill 142. Here’s the relevant part:

“In a products liability action alleging that injuries received by a claimant in an accident were enhanced by a defective product, the trier of fact shall consider the fault of all persons who contributed to the accident when apportioning fault between or among them.”

The new law also defined “accident” as “the events and actions that relate to the incident as well as those events and actions that relate to the alleged defect or injuries, including enhanced injuries.”

When the new law was enacted, Florida essentially went back to the way the law worked before the D’Amario decision in 2001. Remember how we separated your accident into two collisions, with the second collision being the airbag slinging a metal shard into your eye? That’s gone. The new law means that in your case against the defective airbag manufacturer, the jury will be able to hear evidence that the accident was your fault.

In essence, the airbag manufacturer will be able to blame you for causing the accident in order to dodge responsibility for creating a functioning shrapnel grenade instead of an airbag.