Personal Injury

Infant and Child Car Seats: Injury Risk and Liability

By Carol DiBari, Attorney
Safety seats protect children in the event of a car accident, but improper design, manufacture, installation, or use can lead to injury.

An infant car seat is often one of the first purchases made by a new parent. These seats are specifically designed to protect children from injury in any kind of car accident. But sometimes a defect in a child safety seat, or a problem in the way the seat is used, causes or contributes to injury. That's the focus of this article.

Child Car Seat Safety Laws and Recommendations

There are laws in all 50 states that require infants and children in vehicles to ride in a proper safety seat. These standards typically take into consideration a child's age, weight and height in laying out what's required in terms of equipment and placement in the vehicle. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) also issue and update recommendations on appropriate child car seat equipment and use. These standards can usually be divided into four categories:

Rear-facing car seat. Infants and toddlers should be restrained in a rear-facing car seat until they reach the weight and height limits set by the manufacturer for that seat.

Forward-facing car seat. Toddlers and children up to age five should be restrained in a forward-facing car seat with a harness until they reach the weight and height limits set by the manufacturer for that seat.

Booster seat. School-aged children who have outgrown their forward-facing car seats should be restrained in a booster seat that properly positions the seatbelt for buckling, until they reach the weight and height limits set by the manufacturer for the booster seat.

Seatbelt. Once a child is big enough for the seatbelt to lay properly over the lap and shoulder without the use of a booster seat, the child should then be restrained with a seatbelt in the back seat.

Restraining a child in an improper seat, or using the right seat in the wrong way, means that your child will not be sufficiently secure and protected in the event of an accident.

Get more child safety seat guidelines and tips from SaferCar.gov.

Injuries Caused by "User Error"

Having the appropriate car seat does not guarantee that your child will be safe. Properly installing and using the car seat restraints are equally, if not more, important.

When a caregiver neglects to restrain a child in a safety seat, fails to use the seat in a proper position in the vehicle, or fails to install the seat correctly, liability for negligence could result if that carelessness causes or contributes to a child's injuries in a car accident.

Injuries Caused by Product Defects

Even when car seats are properly installed and used, injuries may occur if some defect has rendered the car seat unsafe. (Often these defects prompt the recall of safety equipment; search child seat recalls using the NHTSA database.)

Whether the defect occurred at the design or manufacturing stage, the manufacturer can be held liable when injuries result from the problem, under a legal theory known as strict liability.

Product liability claims are typically based on design defects, manufacturing defects and/or failure-to-warn.

Design Defects. A design defect claim is based on the argument that some fundamental flaw exists in the original design of the product, rendering it unreasonably dangerous to people who use it. For example, a car seat buckle that unlatches against minimal force might mean there is a defect in the design of the seat. Car seats with design defects pose a current continuing hazard until the design is fixed and all affected products are either repaired or replaced.

Manufacturing Defect claims are based on the theory that, while the original design may have be sound, an error in the manufacture of the product made it hazardous to users. For example, a car seat is designed with tethers to keep it securely in place in the vehicle, but the manufacturer somehow failed to install on of the tether, making the car seat unstable and dangerous. This manufacturing defect could be remedied by recalling the hazardous car seats and installing the required tethers.

Failure to Warn claims arise when a product lacks sufficient warnings or instructions. When no text in an instruction manual and no stickers or other warnings inform caregivers about known risks of using a car seat in the wrong position, this kind of claim may be possible, especially when the potential for misuse is reasonably foreseeable.

Protecting Your Child

Of course, legal theories of liability and potential lawsuits are secondary to what's most important: keeping child passengers safe.

  • Get familiar with the car seat manufacturer’s guidelines and be aware of any safety recalls that could affect your equipment.
  • Ensure that your child’s car seat is properly installed and that all the restraints are used as instructed. Many local fire departments will gladly inspect your work on a drop-in basis if you bring your vehicle to the station.
  • Anyone who transports your child should be familiar with the car seat and how to use it to properly restrain your child.
  • Set a good example for your child by always wearing your own seatbelt in the car.

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