Defective airbags made by the Japanese automotive supplier Takata have triggered the largest auto safety recall in U.S. history, prompting 19 major automakers to warn vehicle owners about the risks of airbag explosions. Urgent and repeated airbag recall notices started going out to motorists in 2013 and continue to this day, yet 11 million vehicles with Takata’s faulty airbags continue to operate on U.S. roads and highways.
Takata airbag failures begin in the inflator mechanisms when small, tic tac-shaped propellants receive an electrical charge from the vehicle’s crash sensors. When a crash is detected, an electrical signal ignites the propellants, instantly producing the gas that inflates the airbag.
Takata had been making airbags for several years when reports began surfacing of airbag explosions that blasted vehicle occupants with metal shrapnel, leaving them with debilitating or even fatal injuries.
The company pushed back against claims that its airbags were defective in any way until ultimately, in 2014, it blamed the mounting number of incidents on a bad batch of propellant made at its facility in Coahuila, Mexico. Takata vowed to implement better quality control measures so these incidents wouldn’t happen again.
What Takata officials didn’t disclose to the public at the time was that it had been using ammonium nitrate, a cheaper, low-grade chemical compound, inside all of its airbag inflators. Additionally, the alleged bad batch was representative of all the company’s airbags, not just a few made in Mexico.
Ammonium Nitrate: a dangerously unstable airbag propellant
Ammonium nitrate becomes progressively volatile over time, especially in hot, humid environments like the U.S. South. Exposure to heat accelerates the chemical’s degradation and makes it more unpredictable.
Using ammonium nitrate instead of sodium azide, a solid, stable rocket propellant used by other airbag manufacturers, Takata reduced production costs by more the 90% and gained a competitive advantage. From at least 2008, automakers in the U.S. and other parts of the world installed 100 million defective airbags made by Takata in tens of millions of vehicles.
Takata’s lies are exposed
But it was in the U.S. where the lies Takata had been hiding about its defective airbags were finally exposed, and the truth broke on the case of Brandi Owens, a 24-year-old woman from Georgia.
Ms. Owens was the manager of an Enterprise car rental facility. She was driving home from work in December 2014 when she had to make a hard brake for traffic that had stalled on Georgia 400. The braking caused the vehicle behind her to tap the rear bumper of her 2014 Chevy Cruze so mildly that it barely left a scratch. Her Chevy rolled into the car in front of her.
Although her sedan barely tapped the vehicle ahead, the faulty airbag erupted with violent force, spraying metal fragments into the cabin and blinding Ms. Owens.
Until Ms. Owens’ accident, Takata repeatedly asserted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) that exploding airbag incidents were limited to older Honda vehicles with the Mexican-made propellants. Ms. Owens’ Chevy Cruze with less than 2,000 miles on it clearly didn’t fit that picture.
The truth is Takata knew all along that using ammonium nitrate in its airbags would lead to accidents like this.
“Takata actually placed this chemical into literally tens of millions of vehicles and they knew that this would happen … that there would have incidences in which the propellant, instead of igniting uniformly and creating an air cushion, would create a bomb,” said Beasley Allen attorney Tom Willingham, who represented Ms. Owens in her case against Takata.
According to Mr. Willingham, before the explosion that injured Ms. Owens, nobody knew Takata was hiding the bigger picture about its dangerous and defective airbags. When he started working on Ms. Owens’ case, he also was representing a woman who was injured by an exploding Takata airbag in the U.S. Virgin Islands. That case, however, had fit the narrative Takata had framed about its airbags.
Mr. Willingham also said Takata had performed crash tests that showed brand-new, undamaged ammonium nitrate propellant pellets causing airbag explosions but proceeded to use them anyway.
“So they knew this was going to happen; they just didn’t know to whom and they didn’t know when,” he said.
The immense toll of Takata’s faulty airbags
Takata’s defective airbags have taken an enormous toll on motorists around the world. They have seriously injured at least 290 people, and at least 27 people have died from Takata airbag explosions, including 17 in the U.S.
The injuries have been so catastrophic for some victims that authorities have likened them to gunshot wounds, stabbings, and other acts of violence. In addition to eye injuries and blindness, other injuries caused by the faulty airbags include lacerations, severed arteries, skull fractures, traumatic brain injuries, broken bones and other trauma to the face, neck and upper torso.
The mounting number of Takata-related injuries and deaths eventually prompted automakers to recall millions of vehicles equipped with Takata airbags, collectively forming the largest auto safety recall in U.S. history.
But the problem is far from over despite the safety recalls. More than 11 million U.S. vehicles with defective Takata airbags remain on the road, unrepaired, to this day. Thousands of those include what authorities have dubbed “alpha” airbags, which have a 50-50 chance of exploding even in the most minor accidents that don’t warrant airbag deployment.
Compounding the problem is the airbag replacements themselves. The U.S. government has allowed the inflator mechanisms in the replacement airbags to use ammonium nitrate.
“So a customer will come in for a replacement and get the exact same propellant in their ‘new’ airbag,” Mr. Willingham explained.
“We believe over time, unfortunately, these replacement airbags will have the same results as the old ones.”
Have you been harmed by a defective airbag?
Tom Willingham and Chris Glover, the managing attorney in our Atlanta office, have handled a number of claims related to defective airbags and other cases involving auto products liability. If you feel you have a claim involving a defective airbag of any type, our attorneys would like to talk to you. You may be entitled to compensation. If you or someone you know has been involved in a vehicle accident and suffered serious injuries you feel are related to an airbag that did not operate as it should – either not deploying, or exploding with too much force – contact us today for a free, no-obligation legal consultation.