When people hear the word airbag, most of them immediately relate it to safety. An airbag’s purpose is to protect occupants and keep them as safe as possible during a vehicle crash. Unfortunately, as the recall on 46 million airbags manufactured by Japanese automotive supplier Takata Corp. proves, that is not always the case. Approximately 29 million vehicles in the United States are not as safe as they should be due to manufacturer error, an error lawyers at Beasley Allen witnessed the effects of firsthand during four cases settled for confidential amounts last year. Each case involved a Takata airbag inflator exploding and causing injuries instead of ensuring protection.
In one of the cases, Angelina Sujata was driving her 2001 Honda Civic in 2012 at about 25 miles per hour near Columbia, South Carolina, when the vehicle in front of her slammed on the brakes. The next thing Angelina remembered was a sharp pain in her chest, which was sliced open to the bone. In another case, Jennifer Griffin’s airbag exploded in her Honda Civic while she was driving in Orlando, Florida. A two-inch piece of shrapnel was sent flying. When highway troopers found Jennifer with blood gushing from a gash in her neck, they were baffled by the extent of her injuries.
Through a series of conscious decisions, Takata and Honda risked lives for their economic bottom lines. Takata opted to use ammonium nitrate, a compound that destabilizes over time particularly if exposed to high temperatures and humidity, to reduce costs despite other airbag manufacturers refusing to use it over safety concerns. However, Takata continued to pursue its use despite internal red flags.
In a January 2016 deposition taken as part of another personal injury suit against Takata and Honda, Mark Lillie, a former propellant engineer at Takata in the 1990s, when the company first began using the unstable compound in its airbags, 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.” Lillie later was interviewed and stated he told Takata that someone would be killed if the design went forward.
We have learned that Takata manipulated tests and data to make its airbags appear safer than they were. Honda was alerted to the safety issues relating to the air bags as early as 2004, when an Accord airbag in Alabama exploded and shot shrapnel throughout the vehicle interior. Honda settled four lawsuits before issuing a small recall in late 2008. Within just six months, Jennifer’s airbag, which the recall did not cover, exploded. By August 2009, four injuries and a death were linked to ruptured airbag inflators in Honda vehicles.
Takata and Honda commissioned a study (that per contract could not be linked to them) in 2012 that concluded ammonium nitrate was too sensitive to changes in pressure to use in airbags. Despite extensive knowledge that ammonium nitrate was not suitable for airbag inflators, Honda did not expand the recall of its airbags until 2014. The recall eventually affected vehicles manufactured by BMW, Chrysler, Daimler Trucks, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota.
On Jan. 13, Takata agreed to plead guilty to criminal wrongdoing and pay total of $1 billion in criminal penalties stemming from the company’s fraudulent conduct, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that only about 12.5 million of the 46 million defective airbags have been repaired. This means that millions of lives continue to be at risk until all of the airbags are repaired. Until that happens, vehicle occupants won’t be safe.
Takata Corp. entered a guilty plea to one count of wire fraud in a Michigan federal court last month as part of its plea deal with prosecutors over the company’s deadly air bag inflators. The plea agreement is part of the settlement Takata reached with the U.S. Department of Justice in January. The company entered its plea before U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh. The settlement resolves the DOJ investigation into the company and its affiliates.
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