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From Products Liability Law Daily, May 4, 2016

Takata air bag inflator recall expanded by 35-40 M; remedy plan accelerated

By Colleen Kave, J.D.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is expanding and accelerating the recall of Takata air bag inflators to include an additional 35-40 million inflators by the end of 2019, thus advancing the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history. The agency is intensifying its actions based on its confirmation of the root cause behind the inflators’ propensity to rupture. Malfunctioning air bags have been tied to 10 deaths and more than 100 injuries in the United States, and 28.8 million air bag inflators have already been recalled (NHTSA Press Release, NHTSA 13-16, May 4, 2016).

According to the agency’s press release, an amended consent order issued to Takata this week requires the company to make a series of safety defect decisions that will support vehicle manufacturer recall campaigns of the additional 35-40 million inflators. The expanded recall will unfold in five phases between May 2016 and December 2019 and will be structured around prioritization of risk determined by the age of the inflators and the climate in which vehicles are operated. Based on three independent investigations into the Takata air bag ruptures reviewed by NHTSA and its independent expert, the agency has determined that a combination of time, environmental moisture and fluctuating high temperatures contribute to the degradation of the ammonium nitrate propellant in the inflators. Such degradation can cause the propellant to burn too quickly, rupturing the inflator module and sending shrapnel through the air bag and into the vehicle occupants. The proposed recall schedule, the agency asserts, will ensure that the inflators will be recalled and replaced before they become dangerous and will give vehicle owners sufficient time to have the necessary repairs completed.

In 2015, NHTSA imposed the largest civil penalty in its history for Takata’s violations of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, and for the first time used its authority to accelerate recall repairs to millions of affected vehicles. NHTSA also appointed an independent monitor to assess, track and report the company’s compliance with the original consent order and to oversee the Coordinated Remedy Program that governed the effort to obtain and install replacement inflators. Going forward, NHTSA has committed to continual evaluation of all available research on the inflators’ performance and immediate action to ensure occupant safety. NHTSA also plans to consult with affected vehicle manufacturers before revising the Coordinated Remedy Order. The revised order, to be announced this summer, will continue to ensure that replacement inflators will be made available to highest-risk vehicles first and will detail the updated vehicle prioritization schedule and the schedule by which manufacturers are required to procure sufficient supply of replacement parts to conduct the required recall repairs.

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