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David Brose
David Brose
Attorney • (800) 397-4910

A Tangled Web of Deception: Automakers Also Complicit in the Takata Airbag Crisis

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Our clients have had shrapnel sprayed in their faces. They have lost their eyesight and suffered severe facial disfigurement. At least 14 people around the world have been killed and hundreds more injured – all because of faulty airbags manufactured by Japanese supplier Takata.  Deployed AirBags.

The Takata airbag story, like an onion, has many layers. When peeled back, it’s apparent that Takata, while the most egregious offender, isn’t the sole entity to blame for this horribly defective product. Automakers – in their hunt to save a few dollars per airbag – had enough information to know the airbags were dangerous, potentially deadly. Yet, no one – not Takata, nor the automakers – acted. As a result, 100 million airbags have been installed in U.S. vehicles, compromising the safety of innocent motorists traveling daily on U.S. roadways.

The Path to Crisis

Takata airbags are at the center of an unprecedented recall crisis. A record 64 million defective airbags have been subject to recall because they can rupture or explode with excessive force and shoot metal shrapnel into vehicle occupant compartments. Even worse, automakers are still selling new vehicles equipped with Takata airbags.

At the heart of the defect is ammonium nitrate, a dangerously volatile compound that acts like a propellant to create a small explosion that inflates the airbags in a crash. The+ ammonium nitrate is housed in the inflater, a metal canister designed to contain the explosion. But, ammonium nitrate can deteriorate and become unstable over time or when it is exposed to moisture in high heat and humidity, causing the propellant to burn too fast; blow apart the metal canister; and send shrapnel into the necks and faces of vehicle occupants.

A recent report by The New York Times revealed automakers played a far more active role in the “prelude” to the airbag crisis than what they want the public to know.

According to The Times, Takata approached General Motors in the late 1990s with a cheaper automotive airbag design than what other suppliers were offering at the time. GM used the cheaper design as leverage over its then airbag supplier – Swedish-American company Autoliv – asking it to match the design or risk losing the automaker’s business.

“Rather than being the victims of Takata’s missteps, automakers pressed their suppliers to put cost before all else.” (New York Times)

A team of Autoliv scientists studied the Takata airbag design and found it relied on ammonium nitrate in in its inflater. The Takata inflaters were about 30 percent cheaper per module, a potential savings of several dollars per airbag, according to The Times. But despite the pressure to compete, the Autoliv scientists refused to use the Takata airbag design.

“’We tore the Takata airbags apart, analyzed all the fuel, identified all the ingredients, he said. The takeaway, he said, was that when the airbag was detonated, ‘the gas is generated so fast, it blows the inflater to bits.’” (New York Times)

A Ticking Time Bomb

I have seen firsthand the devastation that a Takata airbag injury causes to victims. Our firm recently resolved a Takata airbag lawsuit on behalf of a young man who suffered severe and permanent injuries as a result of a crash in Paducah, Ky. Unfortunately, more injuries will occur.

In September, General Motors – the very automaker that tried to leverage Takata’s cheaper design over other airbag suppliers – petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to push back by one year the recall of nearly 1 million vehicles equipped with Takata airbags. The request to delay the recall, set to begin in December, cites data from GM field testing that showed – according to the automaker – that the airbags do not post an unreasonable risk to motorists.

For GM, the recall affects about 6.8 million vehicles, which could cost the auto giant $870 million to replace all airbags (Law360).

Unfortunately, a common theme in most every case our law firm handles is corporate profits before human safety. Corporations like Takata and GM make decisions to cut costs at the expense of the safety and well-being of consumers. I urge every consumer to be diligent in your research to ensure you are not purchasing or driving a vehicle with defective airbags. Take a few minutes to get the vehicle identification number (VIN) from your car and check it on safercar.gov to see if your vehicle is included in the recall.