DETROIT (Bloomberg) — A Takata Corp. engineer involved in testing the company’s airbags invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination in declining to testify in a lawsuit brought by a woman left paralyzed in a 2014 accident.
Lawyers for accident victims claim Takata withheld or doctored bad test results before and after the company’s airbag inflators began exploding, spewing shrapnel into drivers and passengers in accidents in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Al Bernat, an auto safety specialist at Takata sought as a key witness on multiple tests, refused to testify in a deposition in the lawsuit, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, Ted Leopold, a lawyer for the victim, said at a court hearing Friday in Jacksonville, Fla.
Guy Petrillo, Bernat’s attorney, didn’t immediately respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment on Leopold’s statements in court.
“TK Holdings believes the lawsuit is without merit and intends to defend itself vigorously,” Jared Levy, an outside spokesman for Takata’s U.S. unit, said in an e-mail. Levy declined to comment on Bernat.
Leopold, who represents accident victim Patricia Mincey, asked a Florida judge at the hearing to allow her to seek punitive damages in a trial against Takata in August. Mincey alleges the company committed fraud in withholding test data, starting with its largest customer, Honda Motor Co.
David Bernick, a lawyer for Takata, said in court that claims the company falsified data on tests didn’t matter in the case.
“It is not about whether Takata was candid with Honda,” Bernick said. “It is about what did Takata know about Mrs. Mincey’s car.”
Takata doesn’t believe the airbag inflator in Mincey’s car was defective or that it was a cause of her injuries, he said.
Leopold presented evidence at Friday’s hearing that he said showed Takata took product validation tests and eliminated results that fell outside Honda’s specifications before the findings were given to Honda.
“This is a document that was provided to Honda for PSDI-4 inflator,” he said, showing the judge a document referring to the inflator device. “It was done in the U.S, sent to Japan, then given to Honda. On the Japanese side and the U.S. side, they alter the test data,” Leopold said.
“The evidence will show the level of dishonesty and fraud is perhaps the worst we have ever seen in automobile history,” he said.
Florida Circuit Judge James Daniel on Friday denied the request for the jury to consider awarding punitive damages at the trial. Daniel allowed Mincey’s lawyers to resubmit that request later.
Automakers including Honda have recalled more than 19 million vehicles equipped with Takata airbags, the largest overall automotive safety recall in U.S. history. The exploding airbags have been linked to at least 10 deaths, most involving Hondas.
Takata has been sued by drivers and passengers claiming its airbags caused shrapnel injuries. Others, including Mincey, contend the “dangerous’’ nature of the propellant in the inflators can cause excessive-force deployments, often in low-speed collisions. Takata has settled most of the shrapnel cases but is contesting the excessive force claims, according to court records reviewed by Bloomberg.
Honda has also been defendant in airbag cases involving its vehicles.
Mincey has been a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic since an accident in her 2001 Honda Civic on June 15, 2014. The case is set for trial in August in state court in Jacksonville. Honda, which also had been sued, reached a confidential settlement with the plaintiff.
Bernat was described in a November 2014 New York Times story as supervising secret tests of inflators in 2004 that showed unexpected ruptures. The test results weren’t disclosed. Takata disputed the report and said Bernat’s integrity had been “unfairly questioned on the basis of two anonymous sources.’’