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Consumer Case Study: Takata Airbags

“If we go forward with this, somebody will be killed…”

Occasionally, a consumer litigation case arises that captures the public attention because of its scope and the particular dangers underlying the case; the ongoing lawsuits against Takata, a Japanese company, over its automobile airbags represent such a case.

Bloomberg recently published a comprehensive overview and expose on the massive problems at Takata. It is both fascinating, and a sad commentary on what happens when you turn a blind eye to obvious problems. Indeed, Bloomberg labels, rightly, the Takata airbags issue a “crisis”. Takata was long a substantial family business, a closely-held concern founded in the 1930s and managed since by the Takada family in Japan. Takata began by manufacturing textiles, specializing in safety-related products such as parachutes and seat belts. In the 1970s, Takata began to consider producing airbags and eventually fully committed to airbag production via a Washington state facility in the early 1990s.

Automobile airbags constitute a very technical, fragile endeavor as they involve working with explosives in a compressed environment that must “explode” in a controlled manner in a matter of milliseconds to protect the vehicle’s occupants. Airbags generally are sensitive and can be dangerous and, while a number of companies manufacture them, the market is dominated by a few major players (U.K.- based Delphi, Michigan-based TRW, and Sweden-based Autoliv). Takata wanted to, and became, a significant player in this market, aided by its close relationship with Honda.

As the Bloomberg article details, Takata made a conscious decision, ostensibly beginning in the late 1990s to early 2000s, to cut airbag manufacturing costs by using a cheaper, more readily available propellant in its airbags. Takata chose to cut costs, and effectively cut corners, despite warnings from engineers, by using this cheaper propellant, which also happened to be far less stable than more expensive traditional options. The result of Takata’s decision has been the mass-production of unstable airbags that have killed, per the Bloomberg article, thirteen people and injured over a hundred more, sometimes in horrific ways. In the worst cases, Takata airbags, unstable and therefore overly sensitive and imprecise, have exploded during minor collisions, sending shrapnel into the neck of the driver.

Takata airbags, which are something like decaying land mines or bombs, are in many millions of U.S. vehicles of varied makes and models and extensive recalls have been announced. This article by Consumer Reports provides a good reference point for consumers to begin exploring what they need to know regarding Takata airbags. Generally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration oversees automobile defects and recalls in the United States and, if you’re concerned in this regard, you can easily check for defects and recalls pertaining to your vehicle here.

A simple Google search will reveal that, understandably, any number of lawsuits have been filed against Takata. As just one major example, the state of Hawaii recently sued Takata over airbags, demanding compensation for consumers. For an individual car owner, the first thing, if you’ve not already done so, you should do is reference the Consumer Reports and NHTSA links to determine whether there is a Takata airbag in your vehicle and carefully follow the recall procedure as soon as possible. Note that some recalls, however, will be delayed as the process will be layered and staggered based likely based on the year of your vehicle; the older the car, the more likely you may have to wait to get your Takata airbag replaced for free. Given that the recall could eclipse over 100 million vehicles, this may be one of the most difficult, complex, and far-reaching recalls in history.

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