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CONSUMER SAFETY ALERT: Millions of Vehicles Recalled for Defective and Dangerous Airbags

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) has urged consumers to take immediate action to replace defective airbags in millions of BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Suburu, and Toyota vehicles.  The model years of the affected vehicles range from 2000 to 2011 depending on manufacturer and model.  You can check to see if your vehicle is subject to the recall by entering your vehicle’s Vehicle Identification Number (“VIN”) on the NHTSA Web site.

The vehicles subject to the recall all contain airbags manufactured by Takata Corporation (“Takata”).  These airbags, which are meant to serve an important safety function, protecting you and your family in the event of an accident, can actually cause shrapnel-firing explosions when activated, potentially causing even greater injury than the accident alone, and possibly death.  This creates an extremely dangerous condition, as even in a minor accident, airbags can be deployed.  At least four deaths have been attributed to this defect.

The defect seems to manifest more frequently in hot, humid climates, so the NHTSA is urging consumers with affected vehicles in those regions to head to their dealers immediately.  Experts in the industry have speculated that the defect is attributable to ammonium nitrate, a chemical used to cause the airbags to deploy in milliseconds.  Takata is the only airbag manufacturer that uses this chemical.  Bloomberg reports that the use of this chemical could result in lighter, smaller airbags.  Unfortunately, this chemical is sensitive to moisture, and its addition leads to unstable ammonium nitrate, that when ignited on airbag deployment can cause the airbag and shrapnel to explode violently, causing injury or death to those in the vehicle.

Unfortunately, some consumers that attempted to have their Takata airbags replaced report that their dealerships do not have replacement parts to correct the incredibly dangerous defect.  Some dealerships have deactivated the Takata airbags or replaced them with older model airbags while the correct parts are obtained, but this does not solve the problem and may create its own safety risk.

Congress is investigating the role of automakers, Takata, and the NHTSA in delaying this recall.  The House Energy and Commerce Committee is set to have a closed-door briefing on this issue with automakers and representatives from the NHTSA, including a discussion of who knew what and when related to the safety risks posed by the defect.  Honda first reported a dangerous explosion attributable to the Takata airbag defect to the NHTSA in 2004, followed by three other incidents in 2007.  The NHTSA took only cursory action in a previous investigation against Takata relating to the explosion risk and did not require a recall of the over 14 million total vehicles recalled between 2009 and 2014—the bulk of which have been recalled this year, despite automakers and the NHTSA’s knowledge that these newly-recalled vehicles contain the same defective airbags as those recalled in earlier years.

Many, including Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), have blamed the proliferation of “secret settlements” between victims of this and similar defects and automakers that hide these defects from public view.  Others point to the minimal reporting requirements and weak enforcement power of the NHTSA and call for greater oversight.

Once again, you can check to see if your vehicle has been recalled by entering your VIN on the NHTSA Web site or by calling the NHTSA at (888) 327-4236.

If you have attempted to replace your defective airbag and your dealer has turned you away claiming it does not have the necessary parts, please contact Cafferty Clobes Meriwether & Sprengel LLP by e-mail or at (215) 864-2800, as we investigate these claims.