The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) has centralized five proposed class actions against automakers over the recall of faulty Takata Corp. air bags in millions of vehicles in a Florida federal court. The panel said that while the parties supported centralization, the Plaintiffs and the automakers had been split over the location of the venue. During a Jan. 29 hearing, a group of automakers—American Honda Motor Co. Inc., BMW of North America LLC, Subaru of America Inc., Ford Motor Co. and others—urged the panel to select the Western District of Pennsylvania because of its proximity to each of the Defendants.
The Plaintiffs had been split between the Central District of California, as a number of witnesses would be flying in from Japan, and the Southern District of Florida. They said the largest number of personal injury cases came from Florida and Puerto Rico due to high humidity triggering the alleged defect.
More than 70 potential class-action lawsuits have been filed claiming the air bags are defective because they can explode and cause injury or death with flying debris. At least six deaths have been linked to Takata air bags. “This litigation is nationwide in scope,” U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance, chief federal judge in New Orleans, said in the panel’s ruling.
Most of the lawsuits claim unspecified economic damages stemming from the lost value of the vehicles containing the air bags. None of the current cases seek damages for personal injury, but some could be added later, according to the panel’s order. Nine are currently pending around the country.
A key legal question is whether Takata knew of the defect but did not disclose that knowledge to regulators, according to court papers. The company has said it is still trying to identify the cause. The lawsuits also name several major automakers, including Honda Motor Co., BMW of North America, Ford Motor Co., Nissan North America Inc., Subaru of America and Toyota Motor Sales USA.
About 12 million vehicles in the U.S. and about 19 million globally have been recalled because of problems with Takata air bags. Millions more vehicles have been recalled because of unrelated air bag problems, such as inadvertent inflation while vehicles are running but not involved in an accident. Takata announced this week it is projecting a $264 million loss for the fiscal period ending in March, worse than the previous forecast of a $214 million loss. There are more than 30 million Takata air bags in the U.S. and 100 million worldwide. The company controls about 20 percent of the world’s air bag and seat belt market.
Others still had argued for districts in New York, Louisiana and Texas, among others, according to the panel. In the transfer order, the panel noted the national scope of the litigation and that constituent and tag-along actions are pending in more than two dozen districts across the country. The panel said:
Takata and the various motor vehicle manufacturer Defendants have offices and other facilities in a number of different states. No one district stands out as the geographic focal point.
The panel said that “given the litigation’s many moving parts” including multiple Defendants, a related grand jury proceeding and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) ongoing investigation, it was particularly important to select an experienced judge to oversee the litigation. The panel said that U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno “is such a jurist,” and made the assignment. A federal judge since 1990, Judge Moreno oversaw the In re: Managed Care litigation, “a complex docket involving numerous health care defendants,” according to the panel.
It clearly appears that the automakers knew of the defect as early as 2008, when Honda first notified regulators of a problem with its Takata air bags. However, the automakers and Takata opted to not address the issue, leading to deaths stemming from the defect. The manufacturing defect in the air bags dates back to at least April 2000, and Takata became aware of it as early as 2001, but the defect allegedly wasn’t disclosed to federal regulators until 2008.
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