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From Products Liability Law Daily, May 19, 2015

Takata acknowledges defect in some air bag inflators; number of affected vehicles climbs to 34 million

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Air bag manufacturer TK Holdings Inc. (Takata) has acknowledged that a defect exists in its air bag inflator, entering into a consent order with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, pursuant to which the company has filed four Defect Information Reports that expands the national recall of certain types of driver and passenger side air bag inflators (see accompanying story under “Product Recalls” in today’s issue). These recalls expand the number of vehicles to be recalled for defective Takata inflators to nearly 34 million, making this the largest and most complex product recall in the agency’s history. In announcing the action, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stressed that Takada took this action at the Department’s insistence. In addition to the recalls, the Consent Order requires Takata to cooperate in all future regulatory actions that NHTSA undertakes in its ongoing investigation and oversight of the company. NHTSA also announced its intent to begin a formal legal process to organize and prioritize the replacement of defective Takata inflators under the agency’s legal authority (NHTSA Press Release, NHTSA 24-15, May 19, 2015).

According to the press release, testing and investigation by Takata, auto manufacturers, and independent researchers have not yet established a definitive root cause of the inflator malfunctions. In a prepared statement, Takata stated that although it has devoted tremendous resources to these efforts with some of the leading researchers in this field worldwide, including Fraunhofer ICT, it is clear that this is a complex issue that will take time to fully evaluate. The analysis to date suggests that the potential for this long-term phenomenon to occur was not within the scope of the testing specifications prescribed by the vehicle manufacturers for the validation and production of the subject inflators as original equipment.

NHTSA’s analysis of test results and engineering reports from independent organizations points to moisture infiltrating the defective inflators over extended periods of time as a factor. Over time, that moisture causes changes in the structure of the chemical propellant that ignites when an air bag deploys. The degraded propellant ignites too quickly, producing excess pressure that causes the inflator to rupture and sends metal shards into the passenger cabin that can lead to serious injury or death.

The agency already has held informal discussions with auto makers and parts suppliers in an effort to coordinate this large and complex recall. NHTSA also plans to issue a notice of intent to open a proceeding that would coordinate the remedy program for Takata inflators in order to address the highest risks quickly.

Consent Order. The purpose of the Consent Order is to facilitate NHTSA’s role in coordinating a remedy program and in overseeing Takata’s efforts to work with vehicle manufacturers to identify into which vehicles the affected inflators were installed either as original or replacement equipment during service. Under the consent order, Takata agreed to: (1) cooperate with all future regulatory actions and proceedings that are part of NHTSA’s ongoing investigation and oversight of the Takata airbag inflators and accompanying remedial actions; (2) respond to all NHTSA information requests in a complete and timely fashion; and (3) provide NHTSA with all test results and data related to Takata inflators, among other provisions.

Although the Consent Order does not release Takata from potential civil penalties, NHTSA will not seek any civil penalties demanded under its letter dated February 20, 2015, beyond those that might be applicable before May 18, 2015. Under the Consent Order, NHTSA will take into account Takata’s cooperation in seeking any civil penalties against Takata in the future. Takata has also agreed that it will work with its automotive customers to develop plans for reaching out to vehicle owners in order to maximize recall completion rates.

Recall spotlight website. NHTSA has established a new Recall Spotlight website, to provide regular updates on the status of this and other recalls and of NHTSA’s investigation.

Companies: TK Holdings Inc.; Takata Corp.

MainStory: TopStory MotorEquipmentNews

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