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Seat Belt Injury

What Are Defective Seat Belts? What Is Product Liability?

Seat belts are intended to save people's lives when they are involved in an auto accident. If the seat belt was manufactured improperly, or is otherwise defective in any way, it will fail to provide adequate safety to the vehicle's occupants in an accident. In such circumstances, the vehicle's manufacturer could be held strictly liable due to the increased harm to the victim.

Product liability refers to a situation in which a product's manufacturer, retailer, or seller is held liable for allowing a defective product to reach the consumer. This is regardless of the consumer's own negligence, such as contributory negligence. It is important to note that specific laws regarding defective products and product liability can vary on a state-by-state basis. However, there is a set of commercial statutes in each state that are modeled after the Uniform Commercial Code. These statutes contain warranty rules which affect product liability.

Additionally, each individual automobile manufacturer may maintain different policies related to product liability issues. These would be stated in their warranty provisions.

In terms of defective seat belts specifically, those involved in car accidents are likely to suffer worse injuries because of the defect in the seat belt. Seat belt defects can be related to errors in manufacturing, assembly, and/or flaws in the vehicle's overall design. And, failure to exhibit instructions or warning labels regarding seat belts could result in injuries.

What Are Some of the Most Common Examples of a Defective Seat Belt?

Some of the most common examples of a defective seat belt include, but are not limited to: 

    • Lap and Shoulder Belts vs. Lap Belt Only: Some older vehicles are equipped with seat belts that only contain a lap belt, and do not contain any sort of upper torso restraint. Such seat belts have frequently been the cause of severe abdominal injuries, head and facial injuries, and fractures of the spine during a car accident;
    • Tension Relieving Device: Some seat belt systems include a device intended to create slack on the shoulder belt. This device is meant to prevent the seat belt from restricting the occupant's movement. However, this becomes an issue when these devices fail to retract the belt back, after the occupant has moved forward. This results in permanent slack, which can result in spine fractures, head and facial injuries, and abdominal injuries during an accident;
    • Defective Buckles: If the buckle of the seat belt malfunctions, the occupant will not be fully restrained during a car crash and can suffer severe injuries, such as the ones mentioned above; 
    • Passive Restraint Systems: There are some safety belt restraint systems which include an automatic shoulder restraint along with a manual lap belt. Vehicle occupants may forget to buckle their lap belt due to the fact that the shoulder belt is automatic. The automatic shoulder belt could fail to completely restrain the body during an accident. The risks of such devices include strangulation, liver lacerations, paraplegia, and decapitation in severe circumstances;
    • False Latching: A seat belt might be defective if it does not buckle properly. Another example would be if the latch comes undone, without the occupant manually unlatching the seatbelt; and
    • Excessive Seat Belt Slack: Similar to issues involving the tension relieving device, seat belts must be designed to properly fit around an occupant's body. This must be without any excessive slack, which would allow the body to move around or move forward in an accident.

It is absolutely imperative to note that even with the possibilities of a defective seat belt, it is always recommended that a person wear a seat belt. A defective seat belt is still better than no seat belt at all, because injuries caused by no seat belt are considerably more dangerous than the injuries associated with a defective seat belt.

Symptoms of Seatbelt Trauma After an Auto Accident

In the immediate aftermath of an accident, seatbelt injuries may not be obvious right away. Signs and symptoms that may indicate seatbelt trauma include:

  • Internal Bleeding: Seatbelt compression on the organs can cause damage to the urinary tract or bladder, endometriosis, or colon obstruction. Blood in the urine or stools may indicate such damage, while coughing up blood is an indication of damage to the respiratory tract or stomach.
  • Weakness: Damage to the lower back, spinal nerves, or abdomen can cause weakness in the legs. General weakness may also be a sign of internal injuries.
  • Neck Stiffness: Seatbelts can cause whiplash and neck injuries. See a doctor as soon as possible if you experience neck pain or restricted motion.
  • Respiratory and Heart Problems: The force of a seatbelt restraining a moving individual can cause damage to the chest, lungs, or heart. Seek medical attention immediately if you have trouble breathing after a crash.

While properly working seatbelts can prevent fatalities and serious injuries, defective seatbelts can actually be very dangerous. Unfortunately, victims often fail to pursue compensation because of the general expectation that seat belts are there to protect us. In addition, it can be very difficult to prove that a defective seatbelt was the cause of your injury.

Seatbelts fail for a number of reasons, including torn or prematurely worn material, failure of the retractor, and poor design. It will often be necessary to have an expert examine the seat belt system to determine the exact cause, so it's important that you preserve the vehicle and seatbelt before allowing any repairs.

How is Product Liability Determined? What Are the Legal Remedies for Injuries Resulting From a Defective Seat Belt?

If you wish to bring a lawsuit against another party under the theory of product liability, you will need to prove the following criteria:

  • The product was somehow defective during the manufacturing process;
  • The product's manufacturer, seller, or distributor intended for the product to reach the plaintiff, without any changes being made to the product through the process; and
  • The plaintiff and/or their property was injured in some way by the defective product.

In order to successfully recover for injuries caused by a defective product, the injured party must meet all of the following three conditions:

  • The product contained an unreasonably dangerous defect;
  • This unreasonably dangerous defect caused an injury while the product was being used, in its intended way; and
  • The product was not changed in any substantial way from how it was originally sold.

Before discussing legal remedies for injuries sustained from a defective seat belt, it is helpful to discuss some of what may limit the amount of recovery. This can include:

    • Having knowledge of the defect prior to using the product; meaning, if you decided to use the product despite being aware of its defect, the court could limit your recovery;
    • Your state's specific statute of limitations, as in you failed to bring your claim during the allotted time frame; or
    • You somehow mishandled the product and ignored warnings and/or instructions, ultimately causing the product to break or be defective.

You should be prepared to admit or deny any tampering that could have rendered the product dangerous and defective, as this is an important factor in determining liability and therefore what damages you may be awarded.

If a vehicle's occupant was wearing the seat belt properly, but the seat belt failed to provide adequate safety, the occupant may be granted a damages award. Such compensation may include:

    • Compensatory Damages: These are intended to reimburse injured parties for any financial losses associated with the accident. This could include medical bills, lost wages and income, physical injuries, and future medical bills;
    • Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are intended to punish the manufacturer or wrongdoer, in order to prevent future harms. Punitive damages are rarely awarded, and generally only in especially egregious cases;
    • Economic Damages: An example of this would be the lost value of your vehicle's resale value, or the loss of use of the vehicle;
    • Personal Injury Recovery: Personal injury recovery is fairly self-explanatory. If the defective automobile resulted in physical injuries, you may be able to recover for the costs associated with the injury;
    • Class Action: A class action lawsuit may be organized if the defective seat belt has affected a sufficient number of consumers;
    • Manufacturer Reimbursement: In some cases, you could be compensated for repairs to your vehicle by the manufacturer, or for a replacement vehicle.

Do I Need an Attorney for Assistance with Issues Related to a Defective Seat Belt?

If you were in an accident and sustained injuries due to a defective seat belt, you should immediately consult with a local personal injury attorney. An experienced and local personal injury attorney can help you understand your state's laws regarding defective seat belts, such as any statute of limitations and limits on recovery that you should be aware of. Finally, an attorney can also represent you in court, and help you work towards an appropriate damages award.

Call our office today at 212-994-7777 or complete the convenient online contact form to set up a consultation.