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Kia Motors Loses Appeal in Defective Airbag Case

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A Texas appeals court has refused to grant Kia Motors Corp.’s appeal of a $4.4 million judgment against the company, whose defective airbag in a Kia Spectra was ruled responsible for a woman’s death in a head-on collision.

The collision occurred in 2002, when Andrea Ruiz was struck by a pick-up truck and her Spectra’s airbag failed to deploy, causing a fatal head injury.

The 95th Judicial District Court in Dallas issued the initial ruling, which found that Kia had negligently designed the Spectra. At trial, data from the Spectra’s black box showed that the car had cued all airbags to deploy, but that the driver’s side airbag had malfunctioned due to a faulty open circuit.

Experts for both parties told the jury that the industry standard for a safety device like an airbag is to limit failures to one per million. Kia’s corporate representative, Michelle Cameron, testified during the trial that before the date of the accident, the company had responded to 63 warranty claims involving open circuits in the driver’s airbag system for the 190,073 Spectras sold in the U.S. – 331.4 failures per million. –LS Sherman

The jury award was $1.9 million in actual damages and $2.5 million in exemplary damages. Kia Motors and Kia Motors America Inc. appealed, claiming they should not be held accountable for the defective airbag because the Spectra complied with federal government standards for "crashworthiness." As the Texas appeals court affirmed, however, the government standards are not specific to airbag deployment (they are rather general performance standards) and so don’t exempt Kia from liability.

It is gratifying to see the limits of federal preemption in this case. A car company who knowingly sells vehicles with safety features that fail over 300 times more than the accepted standard absolutely deserves to be held accountable for negligence. Our hearts go out to the family of Andrea Ruiz.