Takata executives allegedly withheld test results from its defective airbag inflators and destroyed evidence as early as 2000, at least 13 years before the defects surfaced across multiple automakers, according to a new filings from a personal-injury lawsuit.
In a deposition as part of an ongoing suit in Florida and as cited by the New York Times, former Takata engineer Thomas Sheridan said that while he was investigating a series of failed airbag inflators in June 2000 which had burst apart from excessive pressure, a top executive ordered the parts be “discarded” and doctored the report. That executive, cited by Sheridan as former Takata vice president of engineering Al Bernat, was also named in November 2014 by two additional former Takata engineers, Michael Britton and Mark Lillie, who said he had destroyed test data confirming airbag ruptures in 2004. That test followed the first consumer report of a failed airbag inflator, which had exploded in a 2002 Honda Accord during a crash in Alabama.
The 2000 report, which was written for Honda, instead reported the ruptures as “normal airbag deployments,” according to Sheridan. The statements align with those made by Honda in November 2015 when the company announced it would no longer use Takata airbags in its vehicles; the automaker said that it was “aware of evidence that suggests that Takata misrepresented and manipulated test data for certain airbag inflators.”
“I think this was a complete breakdown of the entire organization to provide a safe product,” Sheridan said in the deposition.
Bernat, who is now a senior vice president for quality assurance, has not responded, although Takata told the Times that it “believes that the lawsuit is without merit.” Previously with regard to the 2004 allegations, Takata said it had denied any “secret tests” during that year but that it had performed tests on airbag cushions that had been tearing on BMW models.
In 1999, Takata changed from Tetrazole, a more expensive synthetic compound used in many of Takata’s current inflators, to ammonium nitrate, a natural compound that was more volatile and cost a tenth of the price, according to Lillie. He is on record, in both company records and later interviews, as saying that ammonium nitrate “predisposes this propellant to break apart” and that “if we go forward with this, someone will be killed.” At least 10 people have died from the shrapnel-shooting airbags—nine of them in Honda vehicles—and more than 100 have been injured.
Takata airbag metal fragment from a 2007 Ford Mustang.
In August 2014, a 2007 Ford Mustang driver was injured by this two-inch metal fragment from a faulty Takata airbag.
Two U.S. senators have called for Takata to recall all airbag inflators with ammonium nitrate, regardless of when or where they were made, since the company first reported exceedingly high defect rates in internal testing in December 2014. In June 2015, executive vice president Kevin Kennedy testified before a Congressional panel that it would stop production of certain ammonium-nitrate inflators but has since been allowed, under a $70-million penalty by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to continue manufacturing them until 2018. Yet the possibility remains that even the replacement parts, many of which include ammonium nitrate, may still be defective.
More than 24 million vehicles from 24 brands have been recalled. Takata first initiated a small recall with Honda in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2013 that five more automakers—Nissan, Mazda, Toyota, BMW, and General Motors—were associated with the issue. Takata has neither identified a root cause nor has it completed an internal investigation.