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Car repair shops concerned about liability when installing on-off switches for airbags

by Joedy McCreary


(June 20) Dan Mancuso, owner of Jerry's Auto Supply in Clarksburg, would love for automobiles to be equipped with on-off switches for airbags.

Just as long as the manufacturers in Detroit install them for him.

That would subject the multi-millionaire automakers -- and not his small repair shop -- to potential lawsuits in case of a mistake in installation, Mancuso said.

"As far as being optional goes, the switch is the best way to go," Mancuso said. "It gives the consumer the option to switch whether they want them on or not.

"But in all the trade magazine articles I've read, there are too many questions about liability (to install them)."

Airbag safety has become a controversial subject between motorist organizations and car repair shops. The two have been debating the installation of on-off switches that enable the driver to decide whether the airbags will inflate upon impact.

But owners of local repair shops say installing airbag switches leaves them vulnerable to legal action.

Officials for the National Motorists Association, saying airbags contribute to traffic-related deaths as much as automobile accidents do, advocate the installation of the on-off switch.

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report dated November 1997, an estimated 32,220 people will be injured by airbags.

"The NMA's position is that first, the government should not require people to put airbags in their cars," said James Mullins, coordinator of West Virginia's NMA chapter. "Second, people should have the choice to turn them on."

Even if they don't have their choice of repairmen to install the airbag switch.

Only one auto body shop in the state -- Ron's Auto Techniques in Parkersburg -- currently installs the switch.

Owner Ron Griggs said deciding to provide the service was purely a business decision. The NMA estimated the installation fee to be $150.

"The biggest thing was that nobody else was doing it," Griggs said.

And if the procedure is done without mistake, Griggs said he assumes no liability in case of a lawsuit.

"If the switch is installed correctly -- and I install it exactly how the manufacturer says -- I don't feel there should be any liability for me," Griggs said.

But other small repair shop owners -- many of whom don't have the legal clout of O.J. Simpson's "Dream Team" -- find themselves unwilling to take such an insurance risk.

"Say you brought your car in and I put a switch on it," Mancuso said. "Then you get into a wreck. The other individual's insurance company might say that he had not been injured as badly as he would have been without the airbags."

The threat of a lawsuit is enough to scare potential installers to death, Mancuso said. And that gives Mancuso -- as well as other small shop owners -- plenty of reason to steer clear of providing the service.

"Everybody assumes that if you're a business, that you have a lot of money," Mancuso said. "That's not true. I can't just go out and hire F. Lee Bailey."