When people hear the word airbag, most immediately connect it to safety. An airbag’s purpose after all is to protect, to keep everyone as safe as possible during a vehicle crash.
As the recall on 46 million airbags manufactured by Japanese automotive supplier Takata Corp. proves, that is unfortunately not always the case. Approximately 29 million vehicles in the United States are not as safe as they should be due to manufacturer error, an error Beasley Allen witnessed the effects of firsthand during four cases settled for undisclosed amounts last year.
Each case involved a Takata airbag inflator exploding and causing injuries instead of ensuring protection.
For example, Angelina Sujata was driving her 2001 Honda Civic in 2012 at about 25 miles per hour near Columbia, S.C., when the vehicle in front of her slammed on the brakes. The next thing she remembered was a sharp pain in her chest, which was sliced open to the bone. In another case, Jennifer Griffin’s airbag exploded in her Honda Civic while driving in Orlando, Florida, and sent a two-inch piece of shrapnel flying. When highway troopers found Griffin with blood gushing from a gash in her neck, they were baffled by the extent of her injuries.
Through a series of conscious decisions, Takata and Honda risked lives for their bottom lines. Takata opted to use ammonium nitrate, a compound that destabilizes over time particularly if exposed to high temperatures and humidity, to reduce costs despite other airbag manufacturers refusing to use it over safety concerns. Takata then continued to pursue its use despite internal red flags.
In a January 2016 deposition taken as part of another personal injury suit against Takata and Honda, Mark Lillie, a former propellant engineer at Takata in the 1990s, when the company first began using the unstable compound in its airbags, testified that there was “[n]ever any evidence, never any test results, never any test reports, nothing to substantiate they had overcome the phase stability problem.” Lillie later was interviewed and stated he told Takata that someone would be killed if the design went forward.
Though we now know Takata manipulated tests and data to make its airbags appear safer than they were, Honda was alerted to the safety issues as early as 2004, when an Accord airbag in Alabama exploded and shot shrapnel throughout the vehicle interior. Honda settled four lawsuits before issuing a small recall in late 2008. Within just six months Griffin’s airbag, which the recall did not cover, exploded. By August 2009, four injuries and a death were linked to ruptured airbag inflators in Honda vehicles.
Takata and Honda commissioned a study (that per contract could not be linked to them) in 2012 that concluded ammonium nitrate was too sensitive to changes in pressure to use in airbags. Despite extensive knowledge that ammonium nitrate was not suitable for airbag inflators, Honda did not expand the recall of its airbags until 2014. The recall eventually affected vehicles manufactured by BMW, Chrysler, Daimler Trucks, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota.
On Jan. 13, Takata agreed to plead guilty to criminal wrongdoing and pay total of $1 billion in criminal penalties stemming from the company’s fraudulent conduct, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Still, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates only about 12.5 million of the 46 million defective airbags have been repaired. Therefore, millions of lives continue to be at stake until all airbags are repaired and can properly keep vehicle occupants safe.
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