On May 13, 2016, the state of Hawaii became the first state to sue air bag manufacturer Takata because of its faulty air bags, some of which have exploded upon deployment, causing over 100 injuries and at least 11 deaths worldwide.
The air bag lawsuit was filed in Hawaii’s 1st Circuit Court, and also named Honda Motor Company as a defendant. The plaintiff claims the automaker was aware of the problems with Takata’s air bags, and installed them in their vehicles anyway.
The state seeks $10,000 for each affected vehicle, which could lead to a $700 million fine, according to AutoNews.
Hawaii Concerned Over High Temperatures and Humidities
Hawaii is particularly concerned about air bag safety because the state regularly has high humidities and high temperatures. According to the complaint, the state’s climate puts residents at a significantly greater risk.
Independent studies and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have reported that these factors, combined with the age of the air bag inflator, increase risk of an air bag explosion. Both affect the stability of the chemical powering the inflator—ammonium nitrate—which has been found to be unstable when exposed to heat and humidity over time. If the inflator ruptures, it forces shrapnel into the vehicle, where it can potentially cause vision and hearing loss, as well as lacerations, cuts, and stab-like wounds that can lead to death.
The NHTSA recently announced that after much research, it had determined that “long-term exposure to environmental moisture and wide temperature fluctuations over time can degrade the propellant used to deploy the airbag, making it unstable and prone to unexpectedly explode,” according to the New York Times.
As a result of these findings, the NHTSA has required Takata and automakers to recall an additional 35-40 million air bags.
Hawaii Claims Takata Was Aware of the Air Bag Dangers
So far, only about a third of Hawaii’s air bags have been replaced, leaving many consumers at risk of accident and injury. As part of its complaint, the state wants Takata and automakers to educate consumers about the dangers of the affected air bags, and seeks compensation for consumers for losses associated with the airbag problems, including alternative transportation costs and reduced vehicle values.
The plaintiffs also claim that Takata was well aware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate when it started using it over fifteen years ago, partially because it was cheaper than what Takata were using before. According to KITV, Stephen Levins, Executive Director of the Office of Consumer Protection, stated that Takata was aware that the air bags were dangerous, but “covered it up.” He added that the company put profits over public safety.
In a press release, the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA) stated: “Though Takata’s own testing showed that the ammonium nitrate propellant was unpredictable and prone to explode, Takata sold its airbags to automakers knowing they would be installed in vehicles sold to consumers.” Takata is also accused of doctoring data to hide the dangers of the air bags, and of ignoring advice from some of its own engineers, who according to the complaint, warned that ammonium nitrate could be deadly.
The plaintiffs claim that Honda was also aware of the problem as early as 2004, but didn’t act until 2008 with its first recalls.