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Hiroshi Shimizu, senior vice president of global quality assurance at Japanese air bag maker Takata
"The goals of this campaign are to save lives and prevent injuries," said John Mendel, Executive Vice President of the Automobile Division of American Honda Motor Co., Inc. "Honda hopes that this new consumer information campaign will bolster our existing and continuing efforts to reach our customers and maximize the vehicle repair completion rates associated with recalls to replace Takata airbag inflators. These ads are a strong call to action from our company designed to break through the clutter, grab the attention of customers driving affected vehicles, and urge that they get required repairs as soon as possible.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced in a press release on February 25 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has ordered Takata to preserve all air bag inflators removed through the recall process.
The airbags will be used as evidence for both NHTSA’s investigation and private litigation cases. The order also ensures the regulators’ access to all data from the testing of those removed inflators.
“This department is focused on protecting the American public from these defective air bags and at getting to the bottom of how they came to be included in millions of vehicles on U.S. roads,” Foxx said. “This preservation order will help us get the answers we need to accomplish those goals.”
Foxx also announced that NHTSA will upgrade the Takata investigation to an engineering analysis, which will help determine the actual cause of the air bag failures, and what the next step will be. It will also establish whether Takata’s refusal to notify the agency of a safety defect violates federal safety laws or regulations.
In 2014, five automakers – BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda and Mazda – launched national recalls for defective driver-side air bags after pressure from the NHTSA.
Those five, plus General Motors, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota, are recalling vehicles for defective passenger-side air bags in areas of consistently high absolute humidity, which is believed to be a factor in the ruptures.
Most of the recalls are for various model years varying from 2000 to 2007, according to a Takata Corp. representative.
Automakers have announced plans to form a testing association, and private plaintiffs have sought access to inflators in federal court to conduct their own tests. NHTSA has also hired an outside expert on the use of propellants.
“There is a strong public safety interest in ensuring that testing moves forward, and that NHTSA has access to all test data,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said. “We have worked closely with attorneys for private plaintiffs to construct this order so that it protects plaintiffs’ legal rights while also supporting our efforts to protect public safety.”
On Feb. 20, the NHTSA began enforcing $14,000 a day in civil penalties against Takata for failure to respond to requests for information about more than 2.5 million pages of documents it has produced under NHTSA orders.
On March 2, 2015, the Takata Corporation convened at a meeting in Michigan to discuss the Japanese airbag manufacturer’s next steps.
Engineers from its automaker customers, including independent OEM association engineers, were updated on testing into the root cause of recent airbag inflator issues. The engineers were also provided with a presentation by an expert from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, which is supplying independent research to determine the root cause of the airbag inflator failures.
Shigehisa Takada, Chairman & CEO of Takata, stated, “While the testing by Takata and research by the Fraunhofer Institute continues, and definitive conclusions have not yet been reached, the work so far has supported our initial analysis that age and long-term exposure over a period of many years to a climate of persistent heat and high absolute humidity are significant factors in the small number of inflators that have malfunctioned. Variability in vehicle makes and models is an additional factor indicated by the testing results thus far, and Takata also continues to consider variability in the inflator manufacturing process as a potential contributing factor.”
Takada added, “We are continuing testing and research and will continue to work openly and transparently with our OEM customers and to do everything we can to support the replacement of all the airbags covered by the automakers’ recalls and safety campaigns. The safety of the driving public is our number one priority and we are committed to do what it takes to achieve this.”
Takata has dramatically increased the production of airbag replacement kits in support of automotive recalls and safety campaigns. The company has increased production capacity to 450,000 replacement kits per month, up from 350,000 in December, and expects to be producing approximately 900,000 kits per month by September 2015.
The company remains confident that newer inflators and those not exposed to prolonged humidity and heat are safe. Takata also is working with other suppliers to further increase the availability of replacement kits for its automotive customers.
Recent Background on the Takata Corp. Airbag Recalls
A2012 NHTSA- sponsored survey study found that 21 to 25 percent of the problems covered by recall notices between 2006 and 2010 remain un-repaired. There are 36 million cars on the road that have uncompleted recall work, according to Carfax.
In October and November 2014, multiple lawsuits were filed across the country concerning Takata airbag recalls.
The Law Offices of Jason Turchin in Ft. Lauderdale, FL announced in a press release on October 24, 2014 that a lawsuit had been filed on behalf of an accident victim allegedly injured by an exploding airbag.
Nunez, a Miami Gardens, Florida resident, was driving her car when she was involved in an accident. As a result of the impact, her airbag deployed. Then a piece of metal allegedly shot through her airbag and struck her in her forehead, narrowly missing her eyes.
The airbag that failed was allegedly designed and manufactured by Takata for use by Honda. The allegations against the airbag manufacturer include that Takata failed to properly design, test and manufacturer its airbag unit. It is also claimed that Honda breached several duties it owed to Nunez and the public in general.
“The biggest concern we have is that a driver doesn’t know if his or her airbag is faulty until the moment of impact, and by then it is too late,” says Jason Turchin, lead attorney in the case.
Turchin and his law firm are currently representing several other victims allegedly injured by defective airbags.
On November 4, another class action complaint was filed in the Southern District of Florida that alleges Takata, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and others “knew or should have known that the Takata air bags installed in millions of vehicles were defective.” The complaint seeks compensation for any consumer who purchased or leased a vehicle involved in the Takata airbag recall announced earlier that month.
A third Takata airbag lawsuit was filed at the beginning of November in California by five individuals who either purchased or leased BMW, Honda and Toyota cars that plaintiffs claim are unsafe because of Takata airbags.
The Takata airbag recall lawsuit alleges that Takata and other defendants “did not fully investigate or disclose the seriousness of the issue and in fact downplayed the widespread prevalence of the problem.”
In November 2014, the Associated Press reported that at least four deaths in U.S. auto accidents have been tied to defective Takata airbags.
Reuters reported earlier that month that Takata was targeted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. The officials were trying to determine if the Japanese company misled U.S. regulators about the number of defective air bags it sold to automakers.
On November 22, the Law Offices of Jason Turchin announced in a press release that a fourth lawsuit had been filed in Florida on behalf of an accident victim injured by an exploding airbag. The lawsuit alleges that South Florida resident Claudia Jana was the driver of a 2001 Honda Civic who was injured when the passenger airbag exploded after an accident and a piece of shrapnel caught fire and landed on her. The lawsuit also alleged that the passenger airbag unit also detached from the dashboard and propelled into the rear passenger seat of the vehicle.
The airbag that failed was allegedly designed and manufactured by Takata for use by Honda. The allegations against the airbag manufacturer include that Takata failed to properly design, test and manufacturer its airbag unit. It also claimed that Honda breached several duties it owed to Jana and the public in general.
“This is the second Honda Civic lawsuit involving a 2001 model and third airbag shrapnel injury claim that our office filed recently,” said Jason Turchin, lead attorney in the airbag lawsuit.
Turchin hopes the lawsuit will get answers as to what is causing the airbag defects, and to compel production of safer airbags. “These airbag lawsuits are not just about money. We want answers,” added Turchin.
December 1, 2014 was the deadline that the NHTSA set for Takata Corp. to respond to its request for documentation and other information, according to the Detroit Free Press.
The NHTSA said in a press release that it was “demanding” the automakers to provide the information to “compel Takata and the affected industry to be frank with not only NHTSA, but the American public” about when they discovered that the airbags were subject to rupturing, and why it was not reported sooner. The agency also ordered Takata to provide information on what type of propellant it uses in its inflators because Takata publicly stated it recently changed the chemical mix of its airbag inflator propellant in the newly designed inflators.
By the deadline, Takata was also supposed to give the public a time frame for when safe inflators would be made, and when air bags would be replaced in the nationwide recall of 7.8 million vehicles.
The airbag recall was initially limited to Florida, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands, areas with above-average humidity. However, the recall went nationwide after cases were discovered in Arizona, California, Minnesota and North Carolina.
Court documents indicate that plaintiffs in five class-action airbag lawsuits filed since October 2014 against Takata Corp. have asked a panel of federal judges to transfer the lawsuits to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida. The plaintiffs also requested that the actions be consolidated for pretrial proceedings.
According to the plaintiffs’ motion to the U.S. Judicial Panel of Multidistrict Litigation (JPML), the first class action lawsuit proceedings are further along than the four other class-action lawsuits pending in California and Michigan.
On December 2, 2014, CNNMoney reported that Chrysler jumped on the recall train after the NHTSA ordered the manufacturer to start recalling its cars with the exploding Takata airbag inflators. The federal safety regulator was “extremely concerned” about the automaker’s “slow pace of the recall.” In its response to the NHTSA, Chrysler conducted a regional recall, and started contacting its customers on December 8, 2014.
Chinese authorities stated on December 16, 2014 that Honda Motor Co. and its two joint ventures in China would recall 569,769 cars due to potentially defective air bags, Reuters reported.
The recalls in China were also implemented due to the risk that “fragmented shards” could fly from the deployed Takata airbags, potentially injuring or even killing motorists.
Vehicle regulators in the United States issued a warrant on January 29, 2015 for whistleblowers with knowledge “of possible defects or any wrongdoing” by Takata Corp.
The NHTSA stated in a press release that it was urging potential informants to call its hotline at 1-888-327-4236, promising legal protection.
“We encourage all individuals with information about the manufacture or testing of Takata air bag inflators, or who have knowledge of possible defects or any wrongdoing by the company, to make this information available to NHTSA,” agency spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said.
Six former Takata employees interviewed by Reuters said they were asked to hide or alter data that showed certain parts and materials did not meet Takata’s specifications or indicated potential issues with key components such as inflators and cushions.
Two of these employees said they witnessed others hiding, altering or ignoring unfavorable test results.
Company officials testified in 2014 at two U.S. congressional hearings, and the Japanese safety equipment maker remains the subject of at least two federal investigations, and the target of dozens of lawsuits.
After being asked to comment on the whistleblowers, a representative of the airbag manufacturer said in a statement, “Takata has a deep commitment to honesty and integrity. Since our founding in 1933, we have worked tirelessly to develop innovative and high-quality products that exceed our customers’ expectations, save lives and prevent injuries. Our number one priority is the safety of the traveling public.”
Most former Takata employees who spoke with Reuters did not want to be named while discussing incidents and situations of a sensitive nature. But they related similar or shared experiences at Takata facilities in Washington, Georgia, Michigan and North Carolina.
Two former Takata employees, Mark Lillie and Michael Britton, have spoken to the New York Times, and Lillie also spoke to congressional investigators about their concerns with the safety of propellant manufactured in a Takata facility in Moses Lake, Washington. The propellant was used to create the gas that inflates air bags in case of a crash.
In interviews with Reuters, Lillie, a chemical engineer who is now retired and living in New Mexico said he left the company before it began manufacturing a new, more volatile type of chemical propellant, ammonium nitrate. Lillie said some Takata engineers thought the material was not thoroughly tested to make sure it was safe. He left the company in 1999.
“I literally said if we go forward with this, someone will be killed,” Lillie told Reuters. “I couldn’t in good faith pump this stuff out believing that it was unsafe to put in front of a passenger in a car.”
Ammonium nitrate was the principal propellant chemical used in hundreds of millions of Takata inflators made since 2000, including those installed in more than 24 million cars recalled in the United States, Japan, China and other global markets.
Britton described an incident in the late 1990s where a test batch of experimental propellant that had not been validated by Britton’s technical group was used without his knowledge in production. This occurred because the company was running out of approved material.
Even though it had not been proven that the propellant would remain stable over the expected vehicle lifespan, it was still used in inflators that wound up in customers’ cars, Britton said. He added that he was not able to get the inflators recalled from the customer.
Britton, in an email on January 29, 2015, said investigators from NHTSA and the Department of Justice have not contacted him. Lillie said on the same day that he has not been contacted by federal officials, either.
Takata did not address specific allegations made by Lillie, Britton or other former employees.
On February 10, 2015, the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) announced the filing of a class action lawsuit against Takata Corp, relating to the massive recall of vehicles containing defective airbags manufactured by the Japanese company.
The ARA brought the class action on behalf of those who operate professional automotive recycling facilities in the United States who have purchased for resale any of the vehicles containing un-deployed and allegedly defective airbags manufactured by Takata.
The complaint alleges that Takata and the Auto Manufacturers misled Automotive Recyclers about the safety and reliability of the allegedly defective airbags.
According to the complaint, Takata was aware of the airbag defect as far back as 2004 when it conducted ‘secret tests’ on several airbags.
It also states that following the disclosure of the airbag defect, the Automotive Recyclers are not able to sell or trade these airbags because they are valueless.
The ARA alleges that it and the Automotive Recyclers had an expectation that Takata and the Auto Manufacturers would disclose known defects in a timely manner to abide federal, state and common law.
The failure to properly disclose the defect caused the Automotive Recyclers to purchase vehicles containing the Takata airbags for amounts greater than their worth.
“Right now, 49 states allow for the sale of recycled, non-deployed OEM airbags,” stated ARA CEO Michael E. Wilson. “New York is currently the only state in the country where professional automotive recyclers are unable to sell recycled, non-deployed OEM airbags.”
Wilson added, “The Automotive Recyclers Association supports only the reutilization of the recycled non-deployed OEM airbag module. ARA has a protocol for the use of original equipment non-deployed airbags, ARAPro, which provides guidelines for the practice of removing an OEM non-deployed airbag, including rigorous inspection, documentation, storage, audit procedures.”
As of March 2015, at least six motorists have been killed by defective Takata airbags.