Lawsuit accuses 3 automakers and parts maker in air bag case
DETROIT A class action lawsuit is bringing three automakers and a parts producer to trial for knowingly selling vehicles that contained air bag inflators at high risk of exploding. These explosions have caused at least four deaths and two injuries.
The federal lawsuit was filed Tuesday in San Francisco. It names ARC Automotive Inc., Knoxville, Tennessee, as the manufacturer of the inflators that were sold to air bag manufacturers. The inflators were then sold to the air bag manufacturers, General Motors, Ford, and Volkswagen.
The five plaintiffs are owners of vehicles equipped with ARC inflators and claim that the defective parts were not disclosed to them when they purchased their vehicles.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been investigating ARC inflators for nearly seven years without a resolution, estimates that there are 51 million on U.S. roads. That’s somewhere between 10% and 20% of all passenger vehicles.
But most drivers don’t know how to tell if their vehicle has an ARC inflator. Even if they took apart the steering wheel assembly, it is possible that the internal parts may bear the markings of the manufacturer or automaker, but not the inflator maker.
” “You could have an inflator time bomb in your lap, and you don’t know it,” Frank Melton, a Florida attorney who is one of the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit.
One of the deaths was a mother of 10 who was killed in what appeared to be an otherwise minor crash in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula last summer. According to police reports, a metal inflator fragment struck her neck during a collision involving a 2015 Chevrolet Traverse SUV.
GM released a statement Tuesday saying it had not had a chance of reviewing the lawsuit. It said it is dedicated to the safety of its products and customers and is cooperating with NHTSA in its investigation.
Messages were left requesting comment from ARC or Ford. Volkswagen declined comment.
The plaintiffs claim that ARC’s air bag inflators use ammonium nitrate to inflate the bags. The propellant is pressed into tablets, which can expand and form microscopic holes when exposed to moisture. According to the lawsuit, degraded tablets have a greater surface area which causes them to burn too fast and cause an explosion.
An explosion can cause a metal container to burst, causing metal shards to enter the cabin. The lawsuit claims that ammonium nitrate is used in fertilizer and as an explosive because it can burn too fast, even without moisture.
The plaintiffs claim that ARC inflators blew apart seven times on U.S. roads, and two times during testing by ARC. There have so far been five limited recalls of the inflators that totaled about 5,000 vehicles, including three recalls by GM.
Auto safety advocates say the case seems to mirror the Takata air bag saga that began in the early 2000s, which also involved exploding air bag inflators and resulted in 28 deaths worldwide, hundreds of injuries and the largest automotive recall in U.S. history. NHTSA has not yet forced any additional recalls as a result of its investigation that began in July .
Sean Kane is the president of Safety Research & Strategies Inc.. Safety Research & Strategies Inc. conducts research for lawyers who sue automakers and for other groups. He noted that many ARC ammonium nitrate inflatables are still in use, just like in the initial stages of the Takata case.
“It’s almost Groundhog Day here,” stated Kane, who believes that NHTSA should have taken action already. “It doesn’t matter if it can kill or injure anyone. It already has.”
ARC, the lawsuit alleges, knew about the danger of ammonium nitrate in patent applications it filed in 1995 and 1998. 2019, After several ARC inflators blew out, ARC acknowledged that it was not suitable for automotive air bags.
The suit claims that General Motors should have known that ARC inflators were unstable when it began recalling Takata ammonium nitrate sandbag inflators in 2013,.
“GM only recalls vehicles with a specific number of inflators. This despite knowing that ARC passenger- and driver-side inflators in different models and years (from 2002 to at least 2015) also had ruptured,” the lawsuit stated.
In its Tuesday statement, GM stated that it bases recall decisions on facts and data. It declined further comment.
The lawsuit claims that ARC’s inflators have a systemic problem and not a small manufacturing defect. In 2014,, an ARC inflator was found in a 2004 Kia Optima. It exploded in a New Mexico crash, injuring its driver.
Two years later, the driver in a Hyundai-owned car was killed when an ARC pump exploded in a collision in Canada. The lawsuit also names Ford and Volkswagen as defendants. They claim that they marketed the air bag inflators to be safe, but they knew they were dangerous.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating ARC inflation in 2015 after a woman in Ohio was hurt when an inflator exploded inside a Chrysler minivan. At the time the agency estimated that there were 490,000 ARC inflators on the nation’s roads.
The review was elevated to an engineering assessment — a step closer towards a product recall — after the death in Canada.
A seven-year investigation is much longer than other NHTSA reviews. However, inflators can be extremely complex, according to David Friedman, a former NHTSA acting administrator and now vice president at Consumer Reports.
Automakers seem to be avoiding recalls because of cost reasons, Friedman stated. Friedman suggested that NHTSA needs a “slam-dunk” case before it seeks recalls due to threats and lawsuits automakers have filed in past.
“That’s a problem in the system,” he stated.
Friedman referred to NHTSA as a poorly funded agency that has had safety issues prioritized after four years under the Trump administration. He demanded far less federal regulation.
” The fact that it’s been stretched on seven years, companies should have blink, or NHTSA ought to have made them. If they really don’t have a claim, Friedman said.
A NHTSA official spoke under anonymity to discuss an ongoing inquiry. He said that the investigation has continued because of the complexity and differences in Takata’s design.
” We want to ensure that what we do is thorough.”
He pointed out that NHTSA’s investigation into ARC had to look at issues other than the Takata case. For example, the inflators of Takata would be contaminated by airborne moisture. ARC presses its inflator canisters to keep out moisture.
” It’s not like Takata,” said the official.
It is still being investigated whether the ammonium-nitrate tablets can degrade without moisture, he stated.
The agency has taken ARC inflators out of vehicles to find out how they work. It has also gathered production data from ARC as well as automakers, and issued an order requiring automakers to report any problems with ARC Inflators. He noted that there had been no incidents for several years, but that there were three in the last two years. Each case is being investigated.
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