2016-12-29 21:52:13
Takata Said to Be Close to Deal With U.S. Over Deadly Airbags

The auto parts maker Takata is nearing a sweeping settlement with federal prosecutors over airbags that can violently explode, according to two people briefed on the discussions. The devices have been linked to many deaths and injuries and prompted the largest recall in automotive history.

An agreement could come as early as the next few weeks, and Takata is expected to pay a penalty of up to $1 billion, the people briefed on the discussions said.

One point that remains unresolved is whether there will be any guilty plea to criminal misconduct, either by the company or one of its subsidiaries.

Such a plea would be an escalation of punishments against auto companies for defective products. In settlements with General Motors and Toyota Motor, for example, the companies agreed to pay substantial fines over defects, but did not plead guilty.

Any broad deal between Takata and the Justice Department would end one chapter in a long-running saga that has enraged drivers, disrupted the auto industry and brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy. While Takata still faces drawn-out legal battles, including a class-action lawsuit, it would no longer be under the cloud of a government investigation.

Takata’s exploding airbags have been linked to at least 11 deaths and more than 180 injuries in the United States. Nineteen automakers are recalling 42 million vehicles to replace the airbags’ metal inflaters. The inflaters can overpressurize and rupture, shooting metal shards into a car’s cabin.

The Justice Department has been investigating whether the company made misleading statements and hid information about the defective airbags from its clients. Takata has already acknowledged that it manipulated airbag test results, but has maintained that its conduct was unrelated to the airbag ruptures.

Former Takata engineers have said that cost considerations drove the company to switch to a less expensive yet problematic propellant in its inflaters in the early 2000s. The propellant, ammonium nitrate, can break down over time, making it unstable and prone to unexpected explosions when exposed to moisture.

Autoliv, a rival airbag supplier, tested the compound in the late 1990s and found it too dangerous to use as an airbag propellant, former engineers at the company have said. But Takata pushed ahead, manipulating test results it submitted to its biggest client, Honda.

Even after a driver of a Honda Accord was injured in a 2004 airbag rupture in Alabama, neither Takata nor Honda sought the involvement of federal regulators, and instead deemed the episode an anomaly.

Mark Abueg, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to comment.

The news about Takata nearing a deal with the government was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.