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Expert Testimony Needed for Questioning as to Airbag Deployment in Automobile Accident Case

By on November 9, 2018 in Litigation with 0 Comments

In a recently published Atlantic County Law Division case, Taing v. Braisted, 2017 N.J. Super. LEXIS 182 (Law Div. October 23, 2017), Judge Marczyk dealt with the issue as to whether defense counsel can question plaintiff about whether his airbag deployed in his vehicle at the time of the accident. The judge noted that there was no published New Jersey case addressing this issue. Defense counsel wanted to argue that the lack of airbag deployment was indicative of a minor impact.

This issue was raised through an in limine motion filed by plaintiff prior to trial, requesting that the judge bar the defendant James Braisted from questioning plaintiff about whether or not the airbags in his vehicle deployed during the accident. The plaintiff contended that: (1) the vehicle was a 1996 model, not equipped with side airbags and the collision involved was a side impact and (2) even if the vehicle had airbags, it was improper for the defendant to suggest to the jury that the impact of the vehicles was minor because the airbags did not deploy.

Defendant argued that the deployment of airbags was analogous to the use of photographs in an automobile case, which was permitted under New Jersey law. Defendant contended “that the jury should be able to consider whether or not the airbags deployed in their evaluation of the force of impact from the subject accident in much the same way a jury is permitted to view photographs of damaged vehicles that were involved in an accident to evaluate plaintiff’s injuries.”

The judge noted that the relevance of whether or not airbags activated in an accident is a “recurring issue” in automobile negligence cases. Sometimes the plaintiffs will raise the issue to try to show that there was a significant impact. However, more commonly, it is the defendants who raise the issue in an attempt to demonstrate that the accident was relatively minor.

Judge Marczyk agreed that the deployment of airbags could be relevant depending on the facts of the case. The judge cited as, an example, if the plaintiff was alleging a significant impact in a head on collision in which airbags in the plaintiff’s vehicle were designed to deploy, if the vehicles were travelling as fast as the plaintiff alleged, but they did not deploy.  Arguably, this failure could raise an inference that one or both of the vehicles were not travelling as fast as the plaintiff contended, which could be relevant for the jury to assess credibility and damages.

However, generally, there is no agreement between the parties in whether airbags should have deployed because there are too many variables. The court held that expert testimony is necessary to address these variables. Without expert testimony, the jury would not know the force needed to trigger the specific airbag contained in the vehicle. An expert is needed to explain how an airbag system functions and the location of the airbag sensor. Hence, a jury would not be able to understand why an airbag did or did not deploy in a particular accident.

Under New Jersey law, expert testimony is required when the “matter to be dealt with is so esoteric that jurors of common judgment and experience cannot form a valid judgment as to whether the conduct of the party was reasonable.” When the case involves a complex instrumentality, expert testimony is needed to aid the jury in understanding “the mechanical intricacies of the instrumentality.”

Here, the judge ruled that a motor vehicle’s airbag system is “a complex mechanism or instrumentality” and that expert testimony is required to explain why it did or did not activate under a specific situation. It would not be within the common knowledge of a juror to know the force needed to trigger a deployment of an airbag. Without expert testimony, a jury would not be in a position to determine the relevancy of why an airbag did not deploy.

Thus, Judge Marczyk concluded that it was improper for the defendant to question any witness as to the failure of airbags to deploy to raise an inference that the accident involved was a minor impact. Without expert testimony, “the fact that the airbags did not deploy does not provide the jury with any meaningful information and could mislead the jury.” The court noted that it was possible that a serious accident with significant vehicle damage may not cause airbag deployment while, conversely, a minor accident with little vehicle damage could cause airbags to deploy.

Because the defendant did not have an expert, Judge Marczyk concluded it was improper for the defendant to present evidence as to whether the airbags deployed so as to suggest that the accident involved a minor impact.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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