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From Products Liability Law Daily, December 3, 2014

House subcommittee grills Takata’s executive on decision not to expand airbag recall

By Joe Bichl

During a House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade hearing, entitled “Takata Airbag Ruptures and Recalls,” Subcommittee members questioned both Takata and automaker executives concerning the Takata airbag recall, some asking—but getting contradictory answers—whether Takata even knows what the root cause of the defect is, and why the company rejected NHTSA’s request for a national recall on driver’s side airbags. The hearing, which was chaired by Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb), examined the management and response by the industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the latest auto safety recalls involving defective airbags made by the auto supplier Takata. Executives from Takata, Honda, BMW, and Toyota were present at the hearing. NHTSA’s Acting Administrator David Friedman testified during the second panel of the hearing.

Beginning in 2008, there have been a growing number of auto recalls to address faulty air bag inflators manufactured by Takata due to a risk air bags could improperly rupture. According to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the defect has already caused dozens of injuries and five deaths. Recently, NHTSA renewed its request for a nationwide recall of driver’s side airbags as consumer complaints suggested the defect was occurring in areas other than high humidity locations.

In his opening statement, Rep. Lee Terry said that the Takata recall has been marked by “fits and starts,” commenting that the airbag rupture issue was first noted in 2004 but that a recall did not occur until 2008.

Saying she was “deeply saddened” by Takata’s “incredibly slow response,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill) wondered why the company rejected NHTSA’s request to expand the regional recall to a national level. Schakowsky also questioned what NHTSA can do to improve the recall process. Honda, for its part, has agreed to expand its recall and suggested using expert third-party testers on the airbags; however, Takata Senior Vice President of Global Quality Assurance Hiroshi Shimizu indicated that based on the company’s data, a national recall was not currently necessary because the airbag defect occurs in consistently high humidity areas such as Florida and Hawaii.

When asked by Rep. Terry about its testing since the problem was first discovered, Shimizu said that 4,000 tests have been done on the airbags, with roughly 60 ruptures found. The company currently is testing approximately 100 pieces a day, mostly passenger side air bags.

A contentious moment occurred when Rep. Blackburn (R-Tenn) questioned Takata’s decision to use ammonia nitrate propellant in its airbags despite two engineers’ concerns. She wondered how far up the ladder of the company the concerns went. She also asked if Takata executives simply “blew off” the engineers. Asking the question repeatedly, and not getting an answer she liked, she said the Takata executive was avoiding the question, to which Shimizu stated he didn’t know the answer to the question.

NHTSA’s position. In his opening statement, NHTSA’s David Freidman called the Takata air bag recall story “more complicated than most recalls because, to date, there have been multiple issues leading to three different categories of recalls involving 10 auto manufacturers and over 10 million vehicles since 2008—more than 8 million of which remained unrepaired as of October 2014.” He said he was disappointed by Takata’s decision not to expand the front driver air bag recall to the national level and that “NHTSA will continue the statutorily required process needed to force Takata to act” and will use its “authority as necessary to ensure that such a recall takes place.”

Companies: Takata; Honda Motor Co.; BMW of North America; and Toyota

MainStory: TopStory NHTSANewsStory MotorVehiclesNews

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