Ever since the first automobiles in America hit the roads, the public has been concerned about vehicle safely. We’ve seen the inclusion of seat belts, backup cameras, blind spot sensors and all sorts of bells and whistles, designed to keep us safer. One of the biggest improvements, after seat belts, was the creation of air bags. Air bags are designed to deploy upon impact with an object. Computer sensors located throughout a vehicle send messages to one another, so fast that the airbag can deploy in a split second after impact.

What millions of people on the road today don’t realize is that their airbag might actually be more of a time bomb, ready to fire shrapnel instead of a safety cushion. The Takata Corporation is one of the largest manufacturers of airbags in the country. They supply airbags to nearly every auto manufacturer around the globe. Ford, General Motors, Land Rover, Tesla, Subaru, BMW, and just about everybody in between. Every one of these car makers have now found themselves in the middle of the largest vehicle recall in U.S. history because of faulty airbags supplied by Takata.

Mike Papantonio, host of America’s Lawyer, discusses this with attorney David Haynes.

Transcript of the above video:

Papantonio: For years, Takata produced airbags using ammonium nitrate as a propellant to inflate and deploy the airbag during a collision. The problem is that the ammonium nitrate degrades over short periods of time, which then causes the bag to detach from the brackets. When the airbag deploys it shoots metal pieces of the bracket and the airbag housing forward, creating metal shrapnel that flies at lethal speeds into a drivers head and chest.

So far, 11 people have been killed by Takata’s deadly airbag shrapnel. Those 11 people would almost certainly be alive today if the executives at Takata had an ounce of decency in them. According to the lawsuits that have been filed against Takata, executives from the company were well aware of the problems that existed with their airbags, but they hid those dangers from the manufacturers, in order to continue making obscene profits. All told, this fraud netted the company more than a billion dollars.

It doesn’t end with the company simply hiding the data, documents … Those documents also show that they falsified data, that showed that their airbag’s weren’t even properly working. In one line from the corporate document says it best. It says, “They had no choice but to provide manipulated data”, but of course, they did have a choice. They could have been honest. They could have done the right thing, but instead they chose to continue making hundreds of millions of dollars by manipulating the faulty data at the expense of 11 lives.

For more on the Takata coverup, lets go to David Haynes, an attorney with the Cochran Firm who is representing plaintiffs in this case. David, how about doing this … Tell us exactly what the problem is with these Takata airbags.

Haynes: It is the ammonium nitrate, Mike, that you mentioned earlier, which is an unstable compound. Other airbag manufacturers had declined to use this cheaper product in their airbags because they knew it was too dangerous. Takata however, made a conscious decision to use this unstable, dangerous compound, which can explode and cause metal shrapnel to deploy into the driver or the passenger. They made a conscious decision to do this to save money and sell more airbags. That is what’s led to these terrible injuries, a number of deaths, 180 injuries or more and the largest recall ever in United States history.

Papantonio: David, you’ve gone through the documents in this case, so what can you tell us about the companies knowledge of these problems, long before they ever put the product out there and then after it was out there, they started learning more. Tell us the history of that if you would.
Haynes: That is probably the most distressing thing, is that the documents have revealed that this was a very conscious decision. Going all the way back to the late 1990’s when Takata made the decision to use ammonium nitrate. They became aware that there were certain vulnerabilities of this unstable compound. Particularly in areas that are more hot, or humid. That’s why we’re seeing a lot of the injuries in the southeastern United States. Essentially, the compound begins to degrade over time and when you are in an accident or a crash, and the airbag deflates, the ammonium nitrate is too unstable and the airbag will deploy at a very high rate.

Takata knew this. They began to cover it up as early as 2000. It’s the same ole story, unfortunately, of executives overruling engineers who are raising concerns. In fact, we have evidence, documentary evidence, where they were XX’ing or double X’ing out, is what they called it in the Takata culture. That is, basically just deleting the negative references to the safety concerns. Putting profit over people and just continuing to sell, sell, sell. Let’s not worry about the ticking time bombs that we’re putting on the roads, all over the world.

Papantonio: You know, we’re seeing that more and more David. It seems like it’s constant. A corporation goes after quick profits and they pass the risks on to the user of that product. This is a classic example. In court filings, Takata employees said … This is their words. They had no choice but to move forward with manipulated data about these airbags. In other words, they understood what was happening, but they’re told they have no choice. You reviewed the document, how do you read that into the history of this company?

Haynes: You know, they did have no choice if they wanted to continue to maintain market share. That’s all they were worried about is market share. If they were worried about safety, they had every opportunity and every choice to make and do the right thing. To stand up and never put this product on the market once it became clear, in their internal testing, what the dangers were, they needed to switch it. Many other manufacturers had looked at this and had passed on this compound. This is the one manufacturer that did it. They became the largest manufacturer, in large part, because they were under market and they were able to under sell their competitors because this compound is an essential, a part of the airbag deployment system. They were able to provide a cheaper alternative because it was dangerous.

This is a conscious decision, just like the rear end Pinto, back in the 1970’s. It’s a conscious decision to save money, make more money, even though you know injuries are going to occur. When we first began following this story several years ago, and the initial recalls started to drip, drip, drip out, we knew that we would likely, ultimately end up here. That’s probably the most frustrating thing.

Imagine being one of the families of one of the 18 individuals, or the hundreds who were injured. When you come to find out that Takata knew that this was a problem and even in the last several years, you weren’t getting any help from the Federal Government in getting these vehicles off the road until now, when it’s a huge, large scale problem. Biggest we’ve ever seen.

Papantonio: David, don’t you expect to find, what we call, calculation documents? That’s where they say we’re making a billion dollars a year, we’re gonna hurt “X” number of people. We’re going to kill “X” number of people, then they do the math and figure out they’re going to make more money by not saying anything, by not warning? Those calculation documents, we see all the time in these types of cases. My guess is you’re gonna see them here.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, they’re supposed to play a role in vehicle recalls. Since this is the largest recall we’ve ever seen, did the government do anything about this problem before it just became something that they couldn’t ignore any more?
Haynes: I have to say it’s been very frustrating how slow the government response was. They seemed to turn a blind eye to this when there were some … These real red flags were popping up several years ago, all over the country. We had some voluntary recalls by a few limited manufacturers. Takata was not stepping up and doing the right thing. The government looked at it and didn’t seem interested in it for some reason. Then, we had very limited recalls, and then the deaths kept happening all over the country. We saw gruesome scenes, one was even investigated because they thought it was a homicide. The injuries from the shrapnel were so profound to the driver.

It took a lot for NHTSA to become aware. Perhaps they just didn’t want to try to get their arms around this because the scale is just so large. It’s not until the last several months that they truly have understood what’s going on. One in six, practically of every vehicle on the road, currently has a defective Takata airbag. That’s 42 million airbags, over 19 different manufacturers. This is a huge public health problem and the government needed to intervene earlier, sadly.

Papantonio: David, people are going to be watching this show, trying to figure out if they have one of these defective airbags in their car. How can someone find out if their vehicle is one of those 40 million that have the Takata airbags? What do you tell them when they call up and somebody’s been hurt?

Haynes: Absolutely. They need to check to see if it’s one of their own vehicles, or a loved one, or vehicle that they’re riding in. Chances are, this month, they have been in a vehicle that’s been recalled. Your viewers should go to the NHTSA site which is SaferCar.gov. Look for the “Search Recall” button. Enter in the VIN from their vehicle and then they will be able to find out, whether in fact, that vehicle has been recalled or not and be able to take the appropriate steps to get the recall done. Due to the mass scale, they’re anticipating it’s another two and a half years before this recall will be completed, if then.

Papantonio: David, in opening, I mentioned the fact that when there’s a defect … When the defect takes place, that shrapnel from the brackets, where it’s supposed to be held, actually blown into the face, and the head, and the chest of drivers. Did I get that right? Or, is that an overstatement on how serious this is.

Haynes: It’s not an overstatement in any sense of the word, and unfortunately, it’s very gruesome facial, torso injuries. As I mentioned, one police department was investigating this as a homicide initially, because it looked so bad and so unusual. Our highway patrolmen who are out there on the roads, did not know what was going on with these airbag deployments. Usually we see some dust and some powder from the airbag, but this is essentially the ammonium nitrate destroys the metal canister. It’s essentially shrapnel that’s going in a matter of inches at hundreds of miles an hour, right into the driver or the passenger, causing very severe and permanent debilitating injuries. So, very scary and as we said, 18 deaths so far, tragically.

Papantonio: David, I’ve just got to ask this question. Here we have people dying. We have them horribly injured, people are dying, the company knew what was going to happen. There’s no guess work here. They understand exactly what they’re doing. Has anybody been charged here with any kind of criminal wrong doing? What does it take to say to a CEO or somebody who made these decisions? Listen buddy, you killed people. This is not just negligence, this is … You’ve crossed the line. You have killed people. What has … Has the DOJ done anything? Have they brought charges against anybody?

Haynes: Finally we’ve seen some action in the criminal arena here, but I have to say, it’s one count of wire fraud against Takata and the corporation, which they’ve agreed to plead guilty to. It really is more about money damages. Three individual executives from Takata have been charged, but of course they are in Japan, and I’m sure they’ve been advised not to travel to the United States certainly, or other countries where we have extradition agreements. It’s very limited-

Papantonio: David, just keep the pressure on them. Make them pay. Make them pay and hopefully there will be some criminal charges here at some point.

Haynes: Will do it.