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2017-02-27 16:26:17
Automakers Knew of Takata Airbag Hazard for Years, Suit Says

At least four automakers knew for years that Takata’s airbags were dangerous and could rupture violently, but continued to use those airbags in their vehicles to save on costs, lawyers representing victims of the defect asserted in a court document filed on Monday.

The Justice Department’s criminal investigation into Takata’s rupture-prone airbags has so far painted automakers as unwitting victims duped by a rogue supplier that manipulated safety data to hide a deadly defect, linked to at least 11 deaths and over 100 injuries in the United States.

But the fresh allegations against Ford, Honda, Nissan and Toyota, based on the companies’ own documents, point to a far deeper involvement by automakers that used Takata’s defective airbags for years. The defect has prompted the nation’s largest automotive recall ever, affecting nearly 70 million airbags in 42 million vehicles.

The plaintiffs’ filing with the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida came hours before Takata was expected to plead guilty to charges of wire fraud for providing the false data, a rare outcome for businesses accused of wrongdoing. Federal prosecutors also said last month that they had charged three Takata executives with fabricating test data, and fined the Tokyo company $1 billion.

In a filing in Florida last week, automakers pointed to Takata’s expected guilty plea to argue that the supplier alone was culpable, and that automakers were victims of a cover-up. But the plaintiffs, who could gain from suing the deep-pocketed automakers alongside Takata, argue that the automakers were more deeply involved in the handling of the defect.

Separate from the filing in Miami, Kevin R. Dean, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, filed an objection to Takata’s plea deal on Monday in Detroit, arguing that the automakers were accomplices in the cover-up and should be held responsible.

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, though plaintiff lawyers said they were preparing to take action against the company.

A 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 airbags. The propellant is housed in a steel container called the inflater, 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 long plagued the company’s engineers. And during testing of Takata’s inflaters in 1999 and 2000 at Honda’s own facilities, at least two inflaters 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 airbags because of their relative “inexpensiveness,” the filing quoted Honda documents as saying.

The first recalls of Takata’s airbags 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 airbag 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 airbags in the early 2000s, despite safety concerns.

Toyota used Takata’s airbags “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 inflater ruptured at a Toyota facility during testing, the court filing said.

In 2005, Nissan began investigating adding a drying agent to Takata’s airbag inflaters out of concern that exposure to moisture made the propellant particularly unstable, the filing says. Takata engineers had long known that its explosive was sensitive to moisture, and adopted it despite internal concerns over its safety. And although patents show that its engineers have long struggled to tame the propellant, the company still maintains that the explosive can be stabilized to withstand moist conditions.

And Ford chose Takata’s inflaters over the objections of the automaker’s own inflater 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 inflaters Ford needed, the filing says.

The filing says that Ford, Honda, Nissan and Toyota were also aware of instances of ruptures years before any recalls.

It 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 cover-up. But the German automaker has so far refused to submit documents in the case, the filing says.

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.