Tens of millions of cars have been recalled worldwide over defective and potentially-fatal airbags. The airbags, manufactured by Japanese auto supplier Takata, can over-inflate upon deployment, leading to explosions, serious personal injuries and even death.
Fourteen fatalities have already been linked to Takata's dangerous airbags, with hundreds of other drivers injured. Many of those who were injured are now filing personal injury lawsuits against Takata, one of the world's top four airbag manufacturers. The company has also been hit by a number of wrongful death lawsuits, filed by families who lost a loved one.
In their lawsuits, these victims and families accuse Takata of knowingly installing defective and dangerous airbags in millions of cars. Their allegations are supported by years of investigative reports, including damning evidence that the company hid failed safety test results from government regulators. In fact, reports suggest that Takata executives, along with officials at Honda, have known about the airbag's unreasonable risks for more than a decade.
In the late 1990s, Takata was a major supplier of seatbelts, but the company had failed to break into the lucrative market for airbags. That wasn't particularly surprising, though, since Takata was still making airbags using a stable, but relatively expensive, mixture of propellant chemicals. In order to cut costs, and court large auto manufacturers, the company made a fateful decision. Instead of using the safe propellant that other airbag manufacturers did, Takata would rely on ammonium nitrate, a much cheaper substitute.
Ammonium nitrate, however, is volatile - "dangerously volatile," according to the New York Times. Chemists were well aware of ammonium nitrate's significant risks during the 1990s. Mark Lillie, a former engineer at Takata, even raised concerns over the chemical's use, but his cautions were dismissed. Takata wanted a cheaper airbag, and that's exactly what the company got. After switching to ammonium nitrate, the company's airbag business took off. Eventually, Takata was supplying airbags to nearly every major car company in the world.
When exposed to moisture, ammonium nitrate begins to degrade. That's a real problem, especially in the event of an auto collision. To deploy correctly, the chemical in an airbag's inflator must be ignited - it's a form of controlled explosion. As the chemical becomes a fire, gases are generated to inflate the airbag. Ideally, this process saves lives. But degraded ammonium nitrate becomes explosive, creating gases at an extremely high rate. Takata's airbags don't inflate; they blow up, spraying metal shrapnel directly at drivers and other vehicle occupants.
Humidity plays a key role in this process. That's why government safety officials have focused their recall efforts on the Gulf Coast states, like Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, where humidity is high. It's also why the only reported fatalities outside the US have come from Malaysia, a tropical country.
Airbags, of course, are designed to prevent moisture from contaminating propellant chemicals. But government investigators say that Takata's airbags are marred by manufacturing defects, which allow humid air to enter the device's inflator. Thus, it's only a matter of time before the ammonium nitrate begins to degrade, drastically increasing the risk of a devastating explosion.
It took safety analysts years to figure out what we just explained in a matter of paragraphs: why Takata airbags are prone to explode. In reality, Takata was alerted to the potential for serious harm way back in 2004 - after one of the company's airbags violently exploded in Alabama.
Concerned over the incident, Takata quickly moved to investigate the structural integrity of its product. In Michigan, where the company's US headquarters are located, Takata employees gathered together 50 airbags and began controlled testing. The tests, according to former Takata engineers, revealed troubling results. Two of the airbags developed inflator cracks, creating conditions ripe for an explosion. The findings were so startling that company employees began preparing for an airbag recall immediately, developing potential repair solutions on their own. But instead of notifying federal authorities, Takata executives dismissed the results as an "anomaly," former engineers say, then ordered employees to destroy the test data.
These details, provided to the New York Times by former company employees, strongly conflict with the narrative related by Takata itself. In regulatory filings, Takata says it only began safety testing of the defective airbags in 2008. Those later tests sparked the first recall, which was limited to only 4,000 Honda cars. Today, we know the dangers of Takata airbag are far more widespread.
To date, nearly 30 different vehicle manufacturers, from Acura and Honda to Volkswagen, have issued recalls, urging owners to return their Takata-installed cars for free repairs. In America alone, an estimated 1 in 8 vehicles are affected. Government officials are calling it the "largest and most complex safety recall" in US history.
But the Takata airbag recall effort, orchestrated by the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration, has not been easy. While almost 70 million cars are currently under recall, only 10 million have received the necessary repairs. Even worse, many of the replacement airbags were themselves made by Takata, and will likely need to be recalled in turn.
Meanwhile, the FBI has been conducting an ongoing criminal investigation of Takata's role in delaying the airbag recall. In November of 2015, the company was fined $70 million - for failing to warn safety regulators of the issue in a timely fashion. Takata "misled regulators by providing incomplete or inaccurate information on the safety defect dating back to at least 2009," the Wall Street Journal reports.
Along with firing key responsible employees, the company was ordered to stop using ammonium nitrate in its airbag inflators.
Mark Rosekind, current Adminstrator for the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration, was blunt:
[Takata] misled, obscured and withheld information from both NHTSA and consumers."
Takata now concedes that the airbags are defective. The company's chief executive, Shigehisa Takada, has publicly apologized and agreed to step down. But for now, Takata is still filling airbags with ammonium nitrate and some auto manufacturers are still installing the devices in new cars.
Takata is accused of concealing evidence from federal regulators and knowingly putting lives at risk. More than one hundred drivers have been injured by the company's defective airbags. Fourteen have been killed.
Joined by surviving family members, these victims have begun to file lawsuits. Their lawsuits have been consolidated in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida. In this Miami federal court, the claims will move through pre-trial proceedings as a group.
But the Defendant in these cases has already settled many of them. In fact, reports suggest that Takata has entered settlement agreements with a majority of the families who have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the company. While most of these agreements remain confidential, at least one settlement has been publicized. In 2013, Takata agreed to pay $3 million to the family of a woman who was killed in an airbag explosion.
You may be able to file a lawsuit against Takata, and secure significant financial compensation, if your vehicle's Takata-made airbag malfunctioned, leading to serious personal injuries. Surviving family members may be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit in the event of a loved one's death.
Note, however, that an outright explosion is not required to file a viable airbag lawsuit. In some cases, injured victims have alleged that a Takata airbag exploded in the absence of even a minor collision. Spontaneous detonations, even in cars that are turned off, appear to be possible.
Our experienced product liability attorneys are here to help. Have questions about your legal options? Call our lawyers immediately to secure a free consultation - at no obligation.