Takata Airbag Debacle: Another Death; Recall Expansion Ordered; Federal MDL Formed

In November, in an op-ed piece published in The Oklahoman at NewsOK.com, I chided the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for doing too little too late about the Takata airbag debacle.

Takata Corp., Tokyo, manufactures about 30% of the world’s airbags. About 22 million of the company’s airbags have been recalled, in cars manufactured from 2000 to 2011 by at least ten major automakers, including Honda, Toyota and General Motors.

One of my gripes in my November opinion piece was that the most recent recalls, which were issued in response to deaths and injuries caused by “airbag shrapnel,” did not include Oklahoma, even though the first reported airbag shrapnel death happened right here in Midwest City in 2009.

So, of course, I was pleased when less than two weeks later, the NHTSA issued a Nov. 18 order calling for Takata to expand the recall nationwide. However, Takata is fighting the expansion tooth and nail.

When the NHTSA ordered the nationwide recall, it warned Takata and the automakers that used Takata airbags that if the recall was not expanded, the federal agency would “use the full extent of its statutory powers to ensure vehicles that use the same or similar airbag inflator are recalled.”

I guess we saw that power at work two weeks ago, when the NHTSA slapped Takata with a $14,000 a day fine — that’s about $100,000 a week — to scold Takata for failing to cooperate. The agency said Takata had not responded “fully or truthfully” to the airbag problem.

If Takata were to continue to pay that fine for a year, it would add up to $5 million. With $4.7 billion in annual revenue, I don’t think Takata is overly worried about the hand-slapping the NHTSA has administered.

Instead, Takata has so far defied the order, challenging the agency’s authority to force it to expand the recall and standing by its claim that the airbag malfunction is only an issue in regions of high humidity.

First Shrapnel Death; Most Recent Shrapnel Death

In 2009, teenager Ashley Parham of Midwest City was in a fender bender in the parking lot of Carl Albert High School. Her vehicle’s airbag deployed unnecessarily. When it did, it shot a piece of metal into her neck. Ashley bled to death in a few minutes. Since then, at least five more people have been killed and more than 100 injured in similar incidents, including airbag shrapnel deaths in Virginia, Los Angeles and Florida.

The most recent such death occurred in Texas just five weeks ago. The driver of a 2002 Honda Accord was in a minor collision in the Houston suburb of Spring. One of the drivers, a 35-year-old man, died at the scene. The cars did not experience major damage, but the airbag inflated, causing the injury that killed the man.

The Honda Accord model’s airbag had been the subject of a 2011 recall, but the victim had bought the Honda car less than a year earlier. Apparently no previous dealer or owner had updated the airbag in response to the recall.

The Takata airbags sometimes inflate with too much force. When they do, they explode, hurling pieces of metal and plastic at the driver and front-seat passenger. Ammonium nitrate is the chemical in the airbags that creates a small explosion that inflates the bags. However, when ammonium nitrate is exposed to humidity, it becomes more volatile. That is why the original recall was limited to certain high-humidity regions, such as the Gulf Coast states from Texas to Florida.

Takata Gets Busy on More Replacment Bags

Another huge problem factoring into the Takata airbag mess is that Takata has not manufactured enough replacement airbags to keep up with the recalls. Although Parham’s airbag shrapnel death occurred more than five years ago, Takata has only begun manufacturing the replacement bags in earnest in recent months.

Just yesterday Takata announced that it will double its production of replacement bags over the next six months. That’s great, but why has the company waited so long? Takata seems to be the most recent example of a large corporation that makes its  decisions involving public safety solely on the basis of percentages. Only recently has Takata become convinced that the best move for its own bottom line is to avoid more deaths and injuries and the lawsuits that result.

MDL Created

In February, the U.S. Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated federal Takata airbag lawsuits in the Southern District of Florida. MDL-2599 will be overseen by District Judge Federico A. Moreno. More than 70 federal lawsuits are pending across the country, and 21 of them were immediately added to the MDL.

To make sure Takata does not destroy evidence, last week the NHTSA ordered Takata to preserve airbag parts from recalled cars for analysis by government regulators and by plaintiffs’ attorneys.

I’m sure Takata immediately began crunching the numbers to determine whether it has more to lose by obeying or ignoring the NHTSA’s most recent order.

What To Do If You Are an Airbag Victim

If you have lost a loved one or if you or a family member has been injured due to a faulty airbag, you may be entitled to financial compensation for your expenses and other losses. Contact an Oklahoma City car accident lawyer at Hasbrook & Hasbrook to discuss your legal rights. You can get in touch with us by telephone (866-416-4737), email (cth@hasbrooklaw.com) or use our website contact form.