NHTSA Safety Alert After 3rd and 4th Takata Exploding Airbag Fatalities

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At The Reiff Law Firm, we have been following the, still unfolding, exploding & defective Takata airbags situation for several years now. We wrote about the issue last October while recapping what had transpired thus far. The focus of the article was that, as of October 2013, this was the sixth recent recall related to Takata airbag defects. While the defect was first reported in Isuzu vehicles, the defect has since been associated with many major auto manufacturers including Chrysler, Honda, BMW and Nissan vehicles. More recalls are expected in the coming days and weeks since in an interview with the New York Times, NHTSA deputy administrator admitted that the agency’s list of  affected vehicles is still incomplete.

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In June 2014, we revisited the issue noting that despite numerous Takata recalls – including one recall in May 2014 impacting Toyota vehicles – the injuries kept piling up. At the time, we noted that 2 known deaths and 22 known injuries had been reported. Unfortunately since that time additional injuries and fatalities have come to light. While an NHTSA investigation has been ongoing, NHTSA took the unusual step of issuing a consumer alert urging immediate action on these airbag-related recalls.

NHTSA Issues New Rare Safety Alert over Takata Airbags

In the evening of October 20, 2014, NHTSA took the unusual step of releasing a follow-up press statement urging owners of vehicles equipped with potentially dangerous Takata airbags to take immediate action. The notice issued by NHTSA, in part, read, “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urges owners of certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, and General Motors vehicles to act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags.”

While NHTSA’s announcement did not reveal why NHTSA believes that this recall has become particularly urgent, Toyota’s new re-notification campaign sheds some light on the reasoning behind this decision. According to Toyota’s announcement, there is a possible link between high humidity environments and airbag inflator explosions. Due to this new information, those affected vehicles that are located in particularly humid climates, such as in Hawaii, Florida, much of the southeast, and many coastal areas are believed to be especially at risk.

Problems at the North American Takata Plant

Takata’s main North American production facility is located in Monclova, Mexico which is about a three-hour drive from the Texas border. Reuters has obtained an array of internal documents from the Takata Corporation. In its review of the documents, Reuters has concluded that the airbag safety problems go beyond what the company has disclosed to safety regulators.

The Reuters report asserts that “Dozens of internal Takata engineering reports, presentations and copies of emails … show the company struggled to meet its own standards for safety in manufacturing airbag inflators for a decade until 2011 – four years beyond the period now under investigation by U.S. safety regulators.” According to the Reuters report, from 2001 to 2003 alone, Takata engineers identified at least 45 different problems or defects impacting the airbag inflators. In 2002, the plant was reporting 60 to 80 defects per a million inflators shipped – a rate that is 6 to  8 times greater than Takata’s own quality control limit.Furthermore, despite the reasons offered by Toyota, Honda, and others regarding their own exploding Takata airbags, the documents seem to show that Takata engineers had identified a broad array of causes for inflator defects. These causes were not limited to

  • Rusting
  • Faulty welding
  • Leaks
  • Chewing gum in an airbag inflator

On particular cause for the inflator defect was determined to be caused by using the wrong type of steel tubing. In a separate incident, after it was discovered that an improperly welded inflator component had been sent to an auto manufacturer, management sent an e-mail stating, in part, “A part that is not welded = one life less, which shows we are not fulfilling the mission.” Reuters states that company records indicated that Takata tightened its inspections following this incident.

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The Third and Fourth Fatalities Caused by Takata Airbags

According to information recently released by Reuters, it appears that the third known fatal accident due to Takata airbags occurred in September 2013 near Los Angeles, California. 47-year-old Devin Xu was fatally injured while wearing his seatbelt in a bank parking lot. Apparently and for unspecified reasons, Xu’s 2002 Acura sedan accelerated in the parking lot, struck 3 vehicles, and then came to a stop after hitting a building. Xu’s death was pinned on the traumatic brain injuries, facial injuries, and neck injuries he sustained. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Department report cited “apparent facial trauma due to a foreign object inside airbag.”

The fourth victim of exploding Takata airbags was initially believed to be the victim of a violent attack. Detectives had initially thought that the crash did not cause her death and had treated the matter as a homicide. The Florida Highway Patrol crash report noted that the victim, “”had two or three deep cuts on her right side her neck that were not consistent with crash injuries.” The report also noted that no windows in the vehicle had been broken, so the deep cuts could not have been caused in that manner.  Without an obvious reason for the deep cuts in the victim’s neck, police interrogated a man who appeared on a supermarket surveillance camera not far from the crash. However, that investigation proved to be a dead-end as the man would be released with police stating that he was no longer a person of interest. However, after her sister received a Honda recall notice about 1 week after the fourth victim’s death, she began to put together the pieces.

On September 29, 2014, Hien Tran set out on her final journey in her red Honda Accord.  Ms. Tran had purchased her Accord second-hand and was not aware of safety recalls. She was unaware of these recalls because there is no law that requires the seller of a used vehicle to ensure that all recall repairs have been carried out prior to transferring the vehicle. It appears that Ms. Tran hit a Dodge sedan head-on while turning. Her vehicle’s airbags deployed, but rather than protecting her from serious injury the airbag sent shrapnel flying into her neck. It was these injuries that were first mistaken for stab wounds.

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On October 15, a medical examiner released a report stating, “All of her injuries were the result of the collision and thus the manner of death is an accident.” On the same day, the Sheriff’s department also issued the statement, “The Sheriff’s Office also ruled out the possibility of anyone else being in the vehicle or involved with the incident in any way.”

On October 17th, the Orlando Sentinel was first to report that homicide detectives had attributed the apparent stab wounds to the Takata exploding airbag defect. Detective Ben Thorpe stated, “Those injuries that she sustained were consistent with — quote, unquote — exploding air-bag bags which are related to certain vehicles. It seems to be most consistent with that Honda vehicle.” Thorpe also revealed that Tran’s airbag was torn in several places due to the exiting shrapnel.

Making this matter all the more tragic, Ms. Tran had only recently immigrated to the United States to reunite with her twin sister. She had originally stayed behind in Vietnam to care for her parents when her sister fled in 1983. The twins had only been reunited since 2012. While medical examiners state she never regained consciousness prior to her death 3 days later, her sister disagrees. The sister recalls that at Ms. Tran’s hospital bedside, “Her eye opened and she looked at me. And she looked very sad and she cried.”

Put our Defective Products Experience to Work for You

While details are still emerging regarding the Takata defective airbag recall, a broad array of vehicles and manufacturers are impacted. We encourage you to visit NHTSA’s announcement for a full listing of the vehicles currently known to be affected. If you or a loved one have suffered a catastrophic injury or a wrongful death due to an exploding Takata airbag, you may be entitled to compensation. While we can not change the past, at The Reiff Law Firm we can work to hold the responsible parties accountable for you. TO schedule your free and confidential auto defect consultation call (215) 246-9000 or contact a Berks County car accident lawyer online.

 

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