The Takata air bag recall started as a limited set of focused recalls and regional field actions a few years ago, and has now expanded to become the largest recall campaign in U.S. history, affecting millions of vehicles.
What caused this issue to get so out of hand? Regulators have been asking that question for years.
In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required Takata, as part of their consent order signed in November 2015, to provide a detailed, written report regarding the history of the rupturing inflator issues that gave rise to the recalls. This was the same order in which the NHTSA fined the company $70 million.
Takata supplied that report, as required, in June 2016. In addition to providing details on Takata’s handling of the air bag issue, it revealed that the company failed to report problems with the devices that occurred as early as 2000.
Takata Finds Problems with Ammonium Nitrate as Early as 2000
According to the report, Takata started testing and developing air bag inflators with the propellant “ammonium nitrate” in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The company states that it was considering this change because they believed the new propellant to be “less toxic, safer to manufacture, and more gas efficient, thus allowing for smaller, lighter inflators that were more easily integrated into smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles and vehicle interior designs while providing increased manufacturing and occupant safety.”
It was this propellant that would later be identified as one of the main factors in Takata air bag explosions, however. Recent investigations found that it can become unstable with age and exposure to high temperatures and high humidities. The NHTSA has ordered Takata to phase out use of the chemical in the coming years.
Takata says in its report that it encountered difficulties with the propellant starting in 2000. These included failures to meet certain process validation (PV) specifications provided by the vehicle manufacturer, and “in a few instances, these failures involved ruptures of inflators.” They made changes to the processing of the raw material and say that by spring 2001, the issues were resolved.
Takata Fails to Report 2003 Ruptured Air Bag
More problems were to come, however. According to the report, in 2003, Takata learned that one of their driver-side air bags ruptured during a deployment in a vehicle in Switzerland. They never reported this incident to government authorities.
Instead, they investigated the issue, and “determined that the rupture was an anomaly and was likely due to the overloading of batwing propellant wafers in the inflator.”
Again in 2005, they heard about another rupture that had taken place in May 2004. The inflator couldn’t be recovered, and the company received only pictures of it. They say this limited their ability to determine the root cause of the rupture, and concluded that this second incident was also an anomaly.
It wasn’t until 2007, when the company learned of three more ruptures in vehicles, that they began an investigation with the vehicle manufacturer. In 2008, a fourth rupture occurred, and Takata recommended the manufacturer recall vehicles containing inflators that came from the same production lots as the inflators that had ruptured, as well as vehicles containing inflators from about 207 adjacent lots. This was the first recall of Takata air bags.
Since then, subsequent ruptures and investigations have determined that the issue is most likely caused by unstable ammonium nitrate. Millions of vehicles have been recalled, and repairs are currently underway.
Critics say that Takata waited way too long to report the issues, and that had they more actively pursued the cause of the first initial ruptures, they might have saved many lives.
Exclusively focused on representing plaintiffs, especially in mass tort litigation, Eric Chaffin prides himself on providing unsurpassed professional legal services in pursuit of the specific goals of his clients and their families. Both his work and his cases have been featured in the national press, including on ABC’s Good Morning America.