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From Products Liability Law Daily, June 2, 2015

House Subcommittee continues investigation into the cause of Takata air bag inflator defects

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

In sharp contrast to Takata’s previous testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, regarding possible defects in its air bag inflators, Kevin M. Kennedy, Executive Vice President of North America TK Holdings Inc. (Takata), stated in remarks released in anticipation of the subcommittee’s June 2 hearing that the company will replace all versions of its “batwing” driver air bag inflators through a national recall. According to Kennedy, the recall will proceed in four stages, beginning with older vehicles in the Southern states, Hawaii, and territories, where the levels of absolute humidity are higher, and proceeding in three subsequent stages to include all of these inflators. At a previous hearing on this matter, a Takata witness refused to admit that its air bags were defective and refused to cooperate with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in investigating and remedying the defect that has been linked to a large number of deaths and serious injuries. Since then, Takata has identified six air bag inflators as defective and has announced recalls affecting more than 17 million driver-side air bags and more than 7 million passenger-side air bags [see Products Liability Law Daily’s May 19, 2015 analysis].

“Root cause” issues. The purpose of the June 2 hearing, entitled “An Update on the Takata Airbag Ruptures and Recalls,” was to give the subcommittee members an opportunity to review the investigations surrounding the Takata air bag inflator defects and to learn about new and expanded recalls initiated since the subcommittee’s December 2014 hearing on this issue. The hearing also provided the subcommittee members an opportunity to examine the results of investigations into the root cause of the inflator defects and to review the steps being taken to ensure driver safety while these investigations continue. In opening remarks, several members of the subcommittee stressed that the root cause of the problem had not been identified. As noted by Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.), Chair of the Subcommittee, “none of the tests conducted by Takata over the past year on over 30,000 inflators has given us a clearer picture and dictated more direct action.” The members also questioned why deployment testing wasn’t being done by anyone other than Takata.

In response to the subcommittee’s questions regarding the root cause, NHTSA Administrator Mark R. Rosekind shared the subcommittee’s frustration over the lack of a clear understanding of the root cause of these air bag inflator failures. He advised the subcommittee that while NHTSA’s analysis of the data shows that prolonged exposure to hot, humid climates was associated with greater risk, “the full story is not yet known ... and we may in fact never know the root cause.” Rosekind did assure the members that the agency is taking aggressive action to keep people safe, using all of the tools at its disposal to prioritize and organize the national recalls, including opening a coordinated remedy proceeding. NHTSA also issued a Consent Order giving the agency oversight into the company’s testing and requiring full cooperation by Takata with NHTSA’s investigation.

Recall remedy. John Bozzella, President and CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, told the subcommittee that the recall completion rate is upwards of 80 percent for newer vehicles, but advised that the completion rate falls dramatically as vehicles age. To that end, the association and its members, working with NHTSA, are exploring ways the industry can achieve better outcomes. Kennedy updated the members regarding the ramp up of production for replacement kits, increasing the number of kits produced per month from 350,000 in December to an estimated 700,000 in May. Kennedy forecasted that an estimated one million per month will be produced by September.

Despite these apparent successes, several subcommittee members expressed shock and concern that a large number of vehicles that were repaired had to be recalled and repaired a second time. They also challenged the lack of a plan that will determine who will bear the cost of the recalls, although panel members assured the members that customers will not bear any costs and that dealers will be reimbursed for their expenses related to the recalls.

Companies: North America TK Holdings Inc.; Takata.

MainStory: TopStory MotorVehiclesNews MotorEquipmentNews

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