New Jersey Appellate Division holds evidence of whether a vehicle’s airbags deployed is inadmissible, absent expert testimony
In automobile negligence actions it is commonplace for both plaintiff and defense attorneys to ask the plaintiff whether his or her airbags deployed as a result of the collision. The question, which seems uncontroversial, is relevant in demonstrating the relative force of the collision, which can help the jury evaluate the severity of the plaintiff’s alleged injuries. To be sure, questions concerning airbag deployment can be inconvenient and undermine a plaintiff’s exaggerated description of an accident or a defendant’s downplayed version of an accident. Such was the case in Taing v Braisted , a recent published Law Division opinion from Atlantic County.
In this case, the plaintiff moved in limine to bar the defendant from asking whether the plaintiff’s airbags deployed “at any time during the course of the subject accident.” Id. at 2. According to the plaintiff, the question was improper because it was an “attempt by [the] defendant to suggest to the jury that the impact between the vehicles was minor given that the airbags did not deploy.” Ibid. In response, the defendant “contended that the jury should be able to consider whether or not the airbags deployed in their evaluation of the force of the impact” of the accident. Id. at 2-3. The issue was one of first impression in New Jersey.
In a written decision, the Honorable Joseph L. Marczyk, P.J.Cv., held that in automobile negligence actions, “the deployment of the airbags could be relevant depending on the facts of the case and how the evidence is presented,” but such evidence must be accompanied by “competent expert testimony addressing the different variables at play in the situation.” Id. at 6. The court opined that “[w]hether or not the airbags deployed is not relevant in the absence of expert testimony because it does not, without more information, tend to prove or disprove an issue in the case.” Ibid. The court further stated a motor vehicle’s “airbag system is a complex mechanism or instrumentality which requires expert testimony to explain why an airbag did or did not activate in a specific situation.” Id. at 7. In so holding, the court cited Wood v Toyota Motor Corporation , and Britt v Chrysler Corporation , two products liability decisions where the courts held, in pertinent part, “the issue of whether an airbag was defectively designed is well ‘beyond the ken of the average layman,’” and “an airbag system is ‘precisely the type of complex and technical commodity that [requires] expert testimony to prove an alleged defect.’”
Despite being published, a “Law Division decision is not binding on any court.” State v Anicama . That fact notwithstanding, two months later, the Appellate Division issued a blanket endorsement of Judge Marczyk’s opinion in a brief paragraph couched within a 40-page published decision, stating “[e]vidence concerning airbags deploying or not deploying is inadmissible in the absence of expert testimony. Morales-Hurtado v Reinoso  (slip op. at 24). The court provided no further citation or support for this proposition other than reference to Taing.
In citing Taing, the Appellate Division has superimposed the law regarding design defects and products liability upon common law negligence claims. While not mutually exclusive, products liability and negligence claims are different and present different issues for the jury’s determination. “To succeed under a ... design-defect theory, a plaintiff must prove ‘that the product was defective, that the defect existed when the product left the defendant's control, and that the defect caused injury to a reasonably foreseeable user.’” Zaza v Marquess & Nell, Incorporated . “Generally, the emphasis in ... products liability analysis is on the safety of the product, not on the reasonableness of the manufacturer's conduct.” Ibid. Thus, whereas negligence is conduct-oriented, a design defect claim asks whether the product was reasonably safe for its foreseeable purposes. Beshada v Johns-Manville Products Corporation . While a juror may not understand the intricacies of an airbag system necessary to formulate an opinion as to whether it was defectively designed, a juror knows from common experience an airbag tends to deploy when a moderate to severe impact occurs, rather than a light or negligible impact.
To the extent the evidence of airbag deployment requires analysis beyond the standard principles of relevancy — i.e., having a tendency in reason to prove or disprove any fact of consequence to the determination of the action — it is worthy of more judicial scrutiny than cursory reference to foreign case law pertaining to design defect issues.
Under the current state of the law, absent expert testimony, attorneys may rely on Reinoso and Taing in order to prevent the introduction of evidence regarding whether or not an airbag deployed as a result of a car accident. While the rule is one of general applicability, it will likely benefit plaintiffs more than defendants.
Moving forward, Reinoso and Taing may call into question the continued viability of Brenman v Demello , where the court held the issue of whether to admit photographs of vehicle damage, absent expert testimony, is within the “sound discretion of the trial court.”