Takata Discarded Evidence of Airbag Ruptures as Early as 2000
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As the safety crisis surrounding Takata’s airbags that are prone to rupture has mushroomed, the Japanese auto supplier has insisted that the propellant in its airbags is safe.
But on Friday, testimony in a Florida court showed that Takata’s own engineers discarded evidence that may have shown otherwise as long as 16 years ago. As early as 2000, around the time the propellant, which includes a compound called ammonium nitrate, was introduced into Takata models, failures occurred during internal testing.
But Takata altered its test data to hide the failures from its biggest customer, Honda, and a senior Takata executive ordered some of the evidence be discarded, the testimony said.
Thomas Sheridan, a former Takata airbag engineer, was questioned this year as part of a lawsuit brought by a Florida woman who was paralyzed after her Takata airbag deployed too forcefully during an accident in her 2001 Honda Civic in June 2014. On Friday, her lawyers disclosed the testimony during a hearing over what evidence should be allowed at trial.
Mr. Sheridan said in his deposition that he had tried to examine airbag parts that had failed a series of performance tests included in a June 2000 report to Honda Motor.
But he said that he had found the parts had been discarded under orders from Takata’s vice president for engineering at the time, Al Bernat. Mr. Bernat has also been tied to a series of airbag tests in 2004, in which former Takata test engineers have said that evidence was also discarded.
“I had the data but I wanted to go look for those parts,” Mr. Sheridan was quoted as saying in the deposition. “But when I went to look for the parts, because some of the parts had come apart, they were no longer available. They had been discarded.”
Takata declined a request for an interview with Mr. Bernat, who still works for the company. A company spokesman said it “believes that the lawsuit is without merit and intends to defend itself vigorously.”
Takata did not report the failures to Honda, according to court documents. Instead, it manipulated data to hide results that showed the propellant could combust violently, causing its casing — called an inflater — to overpressurize and rupture, according to the documents. In several instances, “pressure vessel failures,” or airbag ruptures, were reported to Honda as normal airbag deployments, the documents said.
“I think this was a complete breakdown of the entire organization to provide a safe product,” Mr. Sheridan said in his deposition.
Asked whether he was surprised that Takata airbags had since been linked to deaths and injuries, he responded no.
“I didn’t think it would take so long for the failures to show up,” he said. “It took a lot longer than I thought.”
Takata’s airbag inflaters, which can overpressurize and explode when they deploy, shooting metal shards at passengers, have been linked to 10 deaths, including one last month, and over 100 injuries.
Takata has sold as many as 54 million metal inflaters in the United States. So far, 14 automakers have recalled about 28 million inflaters in 24 million vehicles across the nation. Ammonium nitrate is sensitive to high temperatures and moisture, and can become unstable over time.
Allan Kam, a safety expert who worked for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1975 to 2000, called Takata’s supposed disposal of evidence and data manipulation “unbelievable.”
“From a public safety standpoint, it’s deplorable behavior,” Mr. Kam said. “If it were just a cosmetic thing, it would be deplorable behavior. But people could get maimed and killed by this defect.”
On Nov. 3, safety regulators fined Takata $70 million for failing to promptly disclose defects in its airbags, and accused the company of manipulating test data, a penalty that could grow by $130 million if the company does not live up to its agreement with the agency.
The same day, Honda Motor dropped Takata as its airbag supplier, concluding that the company, its longtime partner, had misrepresented and manipulated test data.
Ted Leopold, the lawyer for the Florida woman, Patricia Mincey, presented examples of Takata engineers in both Japan and the United States seemingly manipulating data over years.
In one report on airbag tests, dated 2007 and also prepared for Honda, five of nine data points that appeared in Takata’s original data were not included in the version submitted to Honda, according to the court documents.
Chris Martin, a Honda spokesman, reiterated that the automaker was “aware of evidence that suggests that Takata misrepresented and manipulated test data.”
The hearing, a pretrial session, was not meant to weigh the facts, but to decide on its admissibility as evidence as part of Ms. Mincey’s demand for damages.
The case is unusual in that it involves an airbag the plaintiff argues aggressively deployed, rather than ruptured, but for the same reasons as a rupture.
Takata has fought the accusations, which could open it up to a far wider universe of plaintiffs than just victims of ruptures.
Takata’s lawyers argued that despite the evidence presented, nothing clearly linked it to Ms. Mincey’s case.
In fact, tests conducted on the particular inflater model in the 2001 Honda Civic had so far shown no signs of rupturing, said David M. Bernick, a lawyer representing Takata.
“None of them have ruptured, zero,” he said. “We have no evidence, in fact we have evidence to the contrary, that this inflater was defective at the time of the accident.”
Takata lawyers also argued that the company had been proactive in trying to address potential safety problems as they arose, something that they said was not reflected in the evidence presented by Mr. Leopold.
Judge James H. Daniel of Duval County Court agreed with Takata that there was not enough evidence linking Takata’s actions directly with Ms. Mincey’s accident and injuries. But he said he was open to considering more evidence, which Mr. Leopold said he would provide.
Still, safety advocates found it disturbing that Takata might have known about potential problems years ago, but not immediately reported them to customers, automakers and safety regulators.
“It’s very damning,” said Rosemary Shahan, founder of Consumers for Auto Reliability.
“It’s bad enough to have a faulty product, it’s even worse to cover it up.”