Airbags have been helpful over the years to protect passengers and drivers when there are car accidents. But they also have a record of causing serious or even fatal injuries. Even if an airbag deploys as intended, it can the victim with scars and permanent disfigurement. One of the most common types of injuries with airbags is chemical burns.
Many people do not consider airbag chemical burns as a possible problem. Most of the airbag lawsuits you hear about focus on the shrapnel from an exploding airbag. But consumers also should know about the risk of high temperature chemical burns. Airbags are filled with dangerous sodium hydroxide that turns into an aerosol when the bag is deployed. If the airbag is not vented or filtered right, the gas may cause burns. You also may suffer indirect burns from your clothes melting, or even inhalation injuries.
Airbags are activated when there is a sudden deceleration that causes the propellant cartridge containing sodium azide to ignite. The bag is inflated by nitrogen during the combustion process. Deployment of the airbag releases high temperature gases, including nitrogen and carbon dioxide, which produce sodium hydroxide, an irritant alkaline substance.
In seven or eight percent of airbag deployments, there are various dermatologic injuries that can include chemical and thermal burns, traumatic lesions and irritant dermatitis.
How Airbag Chemical Burns Happen
The sodium azide cartridge in the airbag is activated by a firing signal. At this point, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and other gases are released at once. The gases inflate the nylon rubber airbag in 30 to 40 milliseconds and are released through several exhaust ports to permit deflation within two seconds. There are several metallic oxides that are produced during the combustion process that create an alkaline dispersion of chemicals in the car. Sodium hydroxide is in this aerosol and it can be a major cause of serious chemical burns.
Sodium azide is a very reactive substance that can have a chemical reaction with water. This may lead to the production of various explosive and toxic products after the airbag is deployed. Because it is an inflammable gas, thermals after ignition can occur because of sparks that are produced by high temperatures or electrical devices.
Because it contains high pH, the alkaline aerosol can cause chemical burns when it contacts the skin’s sweat or tears. These irritants may penetrate the skin and can cause deep and serious tissue injuries. Chemical burns may have a splash shape and sharp edges.
Example of a Car Airbag Chemical Burn Case
In the UK, a woman appeared at the ER after a frontal crash at 25 MPH. She complained of a burning pain in her hand and fingers. An examination of her hand showed a partial thickness burn on her index finger and a full thickness burn over the middle finger. The pH of the wounds was 10, which indicated her skin had been burned by alkaline aerosol. The doctor on the case stated her wound features were consistent with airbag chemical burns. Fortunately in this case, the burns were not severe and were healed within a few weeks.
As these cases are becoming more common, some medical professionals have recommended classifying burns caused by airbag deployment. The first would be direct burns from the high temperature gases, and the other from melting clothing.
Example of an Airbag Burn Lawsuit
It is not unheard of for class action lawsuits to occur on airbag burn cases. One in 1999 found that DaimlerChrysler should pay $63 million to owners of Chryslers in Pennsylvania because they could suffer chemical burns to their hands when their airbags deployed in an accident. This case was important because it was the first class action suit to find that airbags could be bad for your health.
In this case, the jury awarded damages of $730 to all owners of Chryslers in the state who owned certain models. This was for a total of up to 82,000 vehicle owners.
What To Do If Burned By an Airbag
If you have been injured by an airbag, the most vital thing to do is to keep all of the evidence related to the airbag. You should keep all parts of the airbag after deployment. Also, be sure the computer in your vehicle is not wiped clean by the dealership. The vehicle also should not be junked or transferred to the auto insurance company.
If you want to pursue the auto or airbag manufacturer for your airbag chemical burn injuries, you and your attorney need to prove the care was manufactured or designed in a way that made it dangerous. In many cases involving a possible car defect, this idea often comes down to whether the car is crashworthy or not. Airbags are a vital part of what makes the vehicle crash worthy. Proving that the airbag did not function as it should have may be important in the case.
Chemical burns by airbags are not necessarily the most well-publicized type of airbag injury, but they can certainly lead to very serious injury that may be actionable in a civil lawsuit.