Embattled Takata, whose airbags are the subject of regulatory and congressional probes as well as individual lawsuits, was challenged again late yesterday by new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) actions. The highway safety enforcement arm of the Department of Transportation ratcheted up the pressure in by upgrading its ongoing probe into an engineering analysis. And, in an unprecedented move, the safety agency ordered Takata to retain all returned airbag inflators.
According to Automotive News, NHTSA required Takata to retain returned inflators so they can be used as evidence in either the agency’s probe or as evidence in private lawsuits. The trade paper noted that this is the first time that the agency has required a firm to retain evidence that might be used in a private lawsuit.
Announcing the twin actions, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said “This department is focused on protecting the American public from these defective airbags and at getting to the bottom of how they came to be included in millions of vehicles on U.S. roads. This preservation order will help us get the answers we need to accomplish those goals.”
The upgrade order is, according to a statement from the Department of Transportation (DOT), a key step in determining the cause of airbag failures that, so far, have claimed six lives, primarily in Honda vehicles, and have injured more than 60 other motorists. The fault appears to involve the propellant used by the airbag manufacturer, ammonium nitrate. Over time, it appears that the explosive deteriorates increasing its potency. On deployment, the inflator housing can shatter spewing shrapnel-like pieces of metal throughout the passenger compartment of a vehicle, sometimes with fatal effects.
The analysis will also help to determine whether any remedies that are ordered are appropriate. Another key to this puzzle is finding out whether Takata deliberately failed to notify regulators of the failures and whether that failure violated safety laws or regulations. The order also prohibits the destruction of any inflators. Last Friday, NHTSA hit Takata with a $14,000-a-day fine for failing to comply with the agency’s order requiring full information disclosure.
According to Automotive News, NHTSA’s requirement that Takata retain the inflators was to assure that all parties in the issue – the safety agency, Takata, plaintiffs in legal actions and the consortium of carmakers that are also investigating the cause of the failure – have access to the inflators. The agency’s move follows the action of a South Carolina judge who limited access to the regulators at the request of attorneys. He did allow those testing the inflators, though, to have continued access. The action yesterday by the safety agency overturns that order.
Court observers were startled by the agency’s level of interest in the case. A Miami attorney involved in the airbag issue – a court panel recently consolidated all airbags suits, moving them all to Miami – was surprised in seeing a DOT acting as an interested party. “I’ve never seen a federal prosecutorial authority appear as an interested party in a civil matter,” Jason Turchin, an attorney involved in many airbag-related cases, told Automotive News.
Since 2008, faulty airbags have resulted in the recall of 25 million vehicles. Last year, Takata initiated one of the latest recalls, ordering vehicles in high-humidity areas to be checked for one of the faulty devices. The recall covered areas in the coastal U.S. South, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, American Samoa and the U.S. Pacific Trust Islands. Limited in geography, the recall was also limited in scope as it covered only front passenger-side airbags. NHTSA had asked Takata to institute a full national recall but was rebuffed by the airbag manufacturer. The agency’s request for a full recall had also included a request that the recall be expanded to cover the both front airbags.
Meanwhile, Takata promised that it would work closely with the federal safety agency. Bob Rendine, a spokesman for the airbag-maker, said Takata believed that yesterday’s action was “in the best interest of all parties, and consistent with our commitment to the safety of the driving public.” He went on to say that finding the cause of the airbag failures has remained Takata’s “top priority.”