Filing: Carmakers knew air bags flawed, used them anyway
Five automakers knew for years that Takata’s air bags were dangerous and could rupture violently, but continued to use those air bags in their vehicles to save on costs, lawyers representing victims of the defect said in a court document filed Monday.
The Justice Department’s criminal investigation into Takata’s rupture-prone air bags has painted automakers as unwitting victims of a supplier that manipulated safety data to hide the defect, which has been linked to at least 11 deaths and over 100 injuries in the United States.
The lawyers’ accusations against Ford, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and BMW, filed in lawsuits against Takata and the automakers in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, point to a deeper involvement by automakers that used Takata’s defective air bags for years. The defect has prompted the nation’s largest-ever automotive recall, affecting nearly 70 million air bags in 42 million vehicles.
Takata pleaded guilty to wire fraud Monday in federal court in Detroit and agreed to pay a $1 billion penalty for concealing the defect.
The company’s chief financial officer, Yoichiro Nomura, entered the guilty plea on Takata’s behalf. He also agreed that Takata will be sold or will merge with another company.
The penalty consists of $850 million in restitution to automakers, $125 million for victims and families and a $25 million criminal fine.
Federal prosecutors said last month that they had charged three Takata executives with fabricating test data. Those executives remain in Japan.
In a filing in Florida last week, automakers pointed to Takata’s pending guilty plea to argue that the supplier alone was culpable and that automakers were victims of a coverup. But the plaintiffs had long argued that the automakers were more deeply involved in the handling of the defect. Last summer, The New
York Times reported indications that automakers, rather than being the victims of Takata’s missteps, had pressed their suppliers to put cost before all else. That report focused on General Motors, which is not named in the Florida case.
The filing by the plaintiffs says emails and internal documents turned over by Honda show that in 1999 and 2000, the automaker was intimately involved in developing a problematic propellant, or explosive, used in Takata’s air bags. The propellant is housed in a steel container called the inflator, which in the Takata case can rupture, shooting
metal fragments toward the car’s driver or passengers.
That propellant, based on a volatile compound, raised concerns internally at Takata at the time, and the issue long plagued the company’s engineers. During testing of Takata’s inflators in 1999 and 2000 at Honda’s facilities, at least two inflators ruptured, according to the filing. Still, Honda pushed a particularly problematic configuration of the propellant over Takata’s objections, the filing said. Honda chose Takata’s air bags because of their relative “inexpensiveness,” the filing quoted Honda documents as saying.
The first recalls of Takata’s air bags did not take place until almost a decade later, when Honda recalled 4,000 vehicles in 2008. The Times has reported that Honda and Takata became aware in 2004 of an air-bag explosion in a Honda Accord in Alabama that shot out metal fragments and injured the car’s driver. But the two companies deemed it an anomaly and did not issue a recall or seek the involvement of federal safety regulators.
The filing cites internal documents from Ford, Nissan and Toyota indicating that cost considerations influenced the automakers’ decision to adopt Takata’s air bags in the early 2000s, despite safety concerns.
Toyota used Takata’s air bags “primarily” for cost reasons, even though the automaker had “large quality concerns” about Takata and considered the supplier’s quality performance “unacceptable,” the filing said. In 2003, a Takata inflator ruptured at a Toyota facility during testing, the court filing said.
In 2005, Nissan began investigating adding a drying agent to Takata’s air-bag inflators out of concern that exposure to moisture made the propellant particularly unstable, the filing said. Takata engineers had long known that the explosive was sensitive to moisture, though the company still maintains that the explosive can be stabilized to withstand moist conditions.
Ford chose Takata’s inflators over the objections of the automaker’s own inflator expert, who opposed the use
of Takata’s propellant because of its instability and sensitivity to moisture, the filing said. But Ford overrode those objections because it thought Takata was the only supplier that could provide the large number of inflators Ford needed, the filing said.
The filing said Ford, Honda, Nissan and Toyota were also aware of instances of ruptures years before any recalls.
The filing also mentions BMW and points to circumstantial evidence that it was similarly involved in what federal prosecutors, in their criminal complaint and in announcing the Takata guilty plea agreement, have called a coverup. But the German automaker has so far refused to submit documents in the case, the filing said.
Representatives of Nissan and BMW said the companies could not comment on active cases. A Toyota representative also declined to comment. Honda, Ford and Takata did not immediately respond to requests for comment.