Lawyers in our firm are handling a number of claims involving Honda vehicles equipped with recalled Takata airbags which caused shrapnel-related injuries. As we have previously reported, components of the airbags break off and can cause blunt force trauma or lacerations of occupants. These Takata airbags are subject to the largest recall in the history of automotive industry. It became known that the inflators in these airbags were made with a propellant that could degrade over time and which led to ruptures that have been blamed for numerous deaths and injuries worldwide.
Airbag inflators aren’t filled with air, but are instead filled with gases that are created by burning propellants. Propellants are used in jet aircraft, gun chambers and demolition explosives. In airbags, the propellant is compressed into aspirin-size tablets and placed in a metal tube called an inflator. During a crash, the propellant tablets are ignited and converted from solid into a gas, which erupts out of the inflator and into the airbag in a matter of milliseconds.
Ammonium nitrate swells and shrinks with temperature changes. Eventually the propellant tablets will break down over time into powder. Water and humidity speed the process. Powder is less stable and burns more quickly than a tablet, so that an airbag inflator whose tablet had turned into powder would likely deploy too aggressively. Takata is the only airbag inflator manufacturer to use ammonium nitrate.
Mark Lillie was a propellant engineer at Takata in the 1990s. While at Takata, Lillie rejected ammonium nitrate as a propellant. However, he was overruled by Takata executives. In a January 2016 deposition, taken as part of another personal injury suit against Takata and Honda, Lillie testified that there was “[n]ever any evidence, never any test results, never any test reports, nothing to substantiate they had overcome the phase stability problem.” His sworn testimony clearly shows that Honda could not have seen any testing substantiating that the phase stability problem was overcome. Lillie was interviewed and later stated that he told Takata that “someone will be killed if the design goes forward.”
Ignoring Lillie, Takata executives followed the advice of Paresh Khandhadia on the issue of ammonium nitrate. Khandhadia testified last year, but was virtually silent due to citing his Fifth Amendment right not to testify against himself. Mr. Lillie left the company in 1999, in part because the company ignored his warnings about ammonium nitrate. Lillie testified further in his deposition that a Takata engineer wasn’t allowed to investigate an inflator that ruptured during testing, and when he protested, was reassigned.
Takata has consistently manipulated and lied about test data. A prime example is a November 2000 memo from a Takata product engineer that states:
The objective of this cover letter is to point out that the Honda test report has incorrect data, data that cannot be validated, data that was incorrectly labeled, or data that does not exist.
In January 2005, Takata propellant engineer Bob Schubert was concerned about ammonium nitrate, writing to his boss that the company was “prettying up” data sent to Honda. At one point, the inflators were said to have passed tests that never occurred. “It has come to my attention that the practice has gone beyond all reasonable devices and likely constitutes fraud.” In 2006, a Takata engineer manager sent an email to a college friend that data about potential problems with product tests were being hidden or ignored. The email states, “It is yet another mess-o-shit we will be handed with no real fix possible. The plant should have been screaming bloody murder long ago.”
However, Honda cannot hide behind the lies Takata told. In 2004, a Honda Accord airbag exploded on an Alabama highway, shooting shrapnel throughout the vehicle interior. Honda was put on notice of the safety problem at that time. Instead of investigating, uncovering and then solving the problem, Honda settled a lawsuit arising out of the incident for a confidential amount. Honda was made aware of three additional ruptures in 2007. Once again, Honda settled those claims for confidential amounts.
Honda issued a small recall of about 4,200 vehicles in late 2008, but within six months should have been made aware that the recall was insufficient because Jennifer Griffin’s airbag exploded in Orlando, Fla., in her Honda Civic. Her Honda Civic was not among the recalled vehicles. The airbag explosion in the vehicle sent a two-inch piece of shrapnel flying. When state troopers found Ms. Griffin, then 26, with blood gushing from a gash in her neck, they were baffled by the extent of her injures. Honda soon linked the airbag explosion to the previous ruptures.
Neither Honda nor Takata can deny knowledge about the dangers of ammonium nitrate, something they knew long before the vehicles were eventually recalled. Renault refused to buy airbags with the dangerous propellant. Since 2008, Takata in Europe has sold airbags with the safer guanidine nitrate.
By August of 2009, ruptured airbag inflators in Honda vehicles were linked to at least four injuries and a death. Honda quietly requested a design change, but did not notify U.S. regulators. The 2009 memo from Honda shows the automaker’s knowledge of the deadly design years before it became common knowledge to the public. The memo showed that Honda requested a “fail-safe” airbag inflator as replacement parts to deal with the widespread Takata airbag flaw. That requests shows that Honda understood as early as 2009 the safety risk posed by the inflators. Honda had reported death and injury tallies to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in a confidential submission in December 2011, at which time the company issued its fifth recall.
In the spring of 2010, Honda and Takata commissioned the High Pressure Combustion Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University to study ammonium nitrate. Representatives from Honda and Takata met with the lab personnel at Penn State to begin the study. As a condition of the study, the lab was not permitted to publicly link the research to Takata or Honda. The findings were published in a scientific journal, but Takata forbid disclosure that it had paid for the study. The Honda and Takata study at Penn State, concluded in 2012, found that ammonium nitrate was too sensitive to changes in pressure.
In March 2012, Angelina Sujata was driving her 2001 Honda Civic at about 25 miles per hour near Columbia, S.C., when the vehicle in front of her slammed on the brakes. The next thing she remembered was a sharp pain in her chest. Her chest was sliced open to the bone. In 2013, Takata publicly filed a defect report with U.S. regulators stating that certain passenger side airbags could rupture as a result of manufacturing errors that were exacerbated when the airbags were exposed to heat and humidity.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that ammonium nitrate was not suitable for airbag inflators, Honda did not expand the recall of these airbags until 2014. The accidents in the four recently settled cases did not occur until 2015.
Takata was forced to pay a fine of $70 million and that could go to $130 million if the company fails to meet its commitments. NHTSA says the civil penalty is the largest the agency has ever imposed and the extent of the oversight into Takata is unprecedented. Three independent investigations have come to the same conclusion about the lethal airbags: long-term exposure to changes in temperature and moisture can make ammonium nitrate propellant dangerously powerful. Mark Rosekind, the head of NHTSA, said:
The science now clearly shows that these inflators can become unsafe over time, and faster when exposed to high humidity and high temperature fluctuations.
One of Takata’s product safety engineers, Schubert, said in a deposition that the ammonium nitrate propellant doesn’t cause problems “until the degradation process has proceeded a very long way, and then the results fairly quickly go to rupture.” He suggested the process could take 10 years. This explains why most of the deaths and injuries have occurred since 2011 when the vehicles were manufactured roughly 10 years before.
If you have any questions or have a case involving these claims, you can contact Chris Glover, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury/Products Liability Section at 800-898-2034 or by email at Chris.Glover@beasleyallen.com. There is a great deal of additional information relating to this subject, but due to space limitations we couldn’t include all of it in this issue. Chris will be glad to talk with you on all that we have learned.
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