Takata airbags were the focus of an investigative report aired by Australian television Sunday, demonstrating how the warnings voiced by the three Takata whistleblowers went ignored by company executives two decades ago.
According to 60 Minutes Australia, the whistleblowers each issued dire warnings to Takata executives when the Japanese auto supplier made the fateful decision to use ammonium nitrate in its airbag inflators in the late 1990s.
“Ammonium nitrate is not appropriate for a high-precision explosion,” Mark Lillie, a chemical engineer and one of the Takata whistleblowers, told 60 Minutes. The chemical is so volatile and unpredictable that it was simply too dangerous to use in what is supposed to be a life-saving device because it can cause what engineers describe as over-deployment, the whistleblower warned. Mr. Lillie warned his Takata superiors that if the company went ahead with its plans to use ammonium nitrate, “someone will be killed.”
Over-deployment is really a more technical term for the word “explode,” because that is what happens when the ammonium nitrate in the airbag inflators becomes compromised. The chemical reaction triggering the airbag inflation is too strong, so it blasts apart the entire airbag unit, spraying vehicle occupants with metal fragments that can maim or kill.
When Mr. Lillie told his supervisor that airbags would be dangerous for this reason, he was told that the decision to use ammonium nitrate had already been made.
Two other whistleblowers, Tom Sheridan and Dan Ramon, recounted their experiences to 60 Minutes about Takata manipulating reports to conceal the volatility of the airbags and workers being ordered by management to return defective airbag parts to the production line – a practice that they said was common within the company.
All three whistleblowers said Takata executives turned a blind eye to their warnings.
An Australian lawyer who is filing a class-action lawsuit against the automakers that bought and used Takata airbags in their vehicles indicated the automakers are complicit in the airbag scandal, which swelled in recent years to become the largest auto safety recall ever in the U.S. and possibly the world.
“Any engineer knows that ammonium nitrate is an explosive and it can’t be stabilized. It’s never been stabilized,” Mr. Scattini told 60 Minutes. “And how many engineers do you think there are if you add them up from Honda, BMW, Toyota, Mazda? And not one of them said, ‘Hang on, why are we putting bomb-making material into our vehicles?’”
Making matters worse, the cars that Takata and automakers are recalling at a record rate remain at risk of a potentially deadly airbag explosion, especially as the unit ages. That’s because automakers are replacing the old Takata inflators with new inflators that are still made with ammonium nitrate. Because the chemical degrades over time and with exposure to heat and humidity, the replacement airbags will themselves need to be replaced in another six years.
Takata airbags have been blamed for the deaths of 23 people and more than 300 injuries. All but seven of the fatal Takata airbag explosions have occurred in the U.S. Six deaths have been reported in Malaysia and one in Australia.
Chris Glover, managing attorney of Beasley Allen’s Atlanta office, has been handling a large number of claims related to the Takata airbag explosions. In February, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware confirmed the reorganization plan of Takata Corporation’s U.S. unit, TK Holdings, clearing the way for the Takata Airbag Individual Restitution Fund (IRF). The $975 million Takata fund allocates $125 million to personal injury and wrongful death claimants – past, present, and future victims of Takata’s defective airbags, regardless of the vehicle in which the airbags were installed. Beasley Allen is looking at all death or injury claims related to Takata airbags, even if the injuries do not appear to be permanent or life-threatening.