The Takata airbag recently claimed another victim. In March, an unidentified driver of a 2003 Honda Civic was injured when the airbag deployed and the inflator housing shattered, sending a jagged piece of metal into the neck. The driver survived after emergency surgery, but has still filed a lawsuit against the automaker.
Honda representatives have not commented on the pending case, except to say that the incident is being investigated. They also claimed that the driver had received two notices about the defective airbags and the recall in the months prior to the accident. The victim's lawyer on the other hand says that his client did not receive a recall notice until ten days after the accident.
Honda is only one of several makes of automobile that has been affected by these airbags; Takata is one of the largest suppliers of these safety devices, and it is estimated that the products may involve as many as 40 million vehicles across the world. So far, only 25 million of these vehicles have been recalled since the problem became apparent in 2008. The defective airbags are responsible for six fatalities and in excess of one hundred serious injuries worldwide.
Unlike Takata, Honda Motors is trying to be cooperative in tracking down affected models, Recently, Honda, along with nine other automakers, hired the U.S.-based engineering firm Orbital ATK in order to investigate the airbags and carry out its own testing on the products.
The problem – which has occurred primarily in regions with warm, damp climates – is connected to the propellant used in Takata products. Early airbags used a synthetic type of propellant gas, known as a tetrazole. “Tetrazoles” are synthetic compounds, and are relatively expensive to produce and toxic – but chemically, they are stable. In the mid-1990s, Takata filed a patent for an airbag inflator that employed ammonium nitrate, a highly unstable, but far less expensive alternative. The “official” word at Takata was that ammonium nitrate could be made stable. However, a whistleblower who had worked as a senior manager at the company reported that the patent documents indicated serious concerns about the problem, and that engineers at the company had doubts that it could even be fixed. Furthermore, heat and humidity appears to hasten a chemical reaction involving the ammonium nitrate, thus weakening the inflator housing and causing it to fracture.
Takata also denies that cost was a factor in the decision to use ammonium nitrate. It has come out however that manufacturing and storage procedures at the Mexico-based factory left much to be desired. Furthermore, tests run by Honda Motors showed that the assembly of the inflator was sub-standard.
Ironically, the Takata Corporation was a pioneer in automotive safety, having developed the first seat belts in the 1950s and the first child restraints twenty years later. Today, the company faces criminal charges from the U.S. Department of Justice, a serious investigation (including engineering analyses) as well as stiff fines ($14,000 a day) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and increasing numbers of lawsuits in the U.S. and Canada. To make things worse, a shortage of replacement parts have caused delays, preventing car owners from having the problem corrected.
For more information on the Takata Airbag litigation, please visit Levin Papantonio Takata Airbag Recall Lawsuit web page.