Automakers face class-action suit over faulty air bags

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Volkswagen and Mercedes knew about a defect in deadly Takata air-bag inflators for years before they recalled the vehicles, according to a series of class-action lawsuits filed Wednesday that seek financial compensation.

Takata uses the chemical ammonium nitrate to create small explosions to inflate air bags. But the chemical can deteriorate and explode with too much force, blowing apart a metal canister and hurling shrapnel. At least 22 people have died worldwide and more than 180 injured.

Suits against GM and Fiat Chrysler filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan allege the Detroit automakers were “intimately involved in the design and testing” of the air bags with the inflator defect and they “knew, and certainly should have known, that the Takata air bags installed in millions of vehicles were defective.”

Similar suits were filed against Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG in Virginia and Georgia, respectively.

Exploding Takata air-bag inflators have been linked to at least 13 deaths and more than 180 injuries in the United States. Twenty-two have died worldwide.

Nearly 50 million Takata inflators have been recalled in the U.S., making it the largest automotive safety recall in U.S. history. Nearly 1 in 8 cars on U.S. roads has been recalled as a result of the defect, and another 20 million faulty air bags in newer cars are expected to be called back in the next couple of years.

The suits seek compensation for owners for loss of value to their vehicles, in addition to repayment for out-of-pocket costs to have the cars fixed, including time taken off from work, rental cars and child care. BMW, Toyota, Subaru and Mazda agreed to pay a combined $553 million last year to settle a similar lawsuit.

The lawsuits filed Wednesday allege the automakers knew of problems as far back as 2003, when a Takata inflator was reported to have ruptured in a BMW vehicle. But the companies named in the legal actions did not begin recalling cars until 2014, despite the fact that Honda had issued recalls in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013, according to the lawsuits.

As the propellant in the Takata inflators ages, especially in humid conditions, it can become unstable and explode with too much force. That can cause inflators to rupture and throw metal shrapnel at drivers and passengers.

According to the lawsuit against GM, the automaker had knowledge of the defects with Takata inflators since the late 1990s when it first began considering buying air bags from the Japanese company. The complaint says the company was warned by its air bag supplier at the time, a Swedish-American company known as Autoliv, that Takata’s use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant made its inflators prone to explode when air bags were detonated.

The suit against Fiat Chrysler alleges it also received warnings from Autoliv in the late 1990s, but proceeded to use Takata air bags anyway.

The complaint against Volkswagen alleges the German automaker was aware of explosions at a Takata plant that occurred in 2006 and failed to react to incidents involving the company’s air bags that occurred in competitors’ cars.

The case against Daimler argues that Mercedes-Benz ignored problems with Takata air bags that were being reported by competing auto companies. Furthermore, its says the luxury automaker was “shockingly absent” from a 2014 meeting that was attended by representatives from 10 other manufacturers to investigate problems with the faulty safety equipment.

GM said in a statement that it has “no reports of inflator ruptures from the field in GM vehicles that were built with these Takata inflators.” Of the allegation that the company had prior knowledge of defects, GM responded: “This lawsuit is baseless and without merit and misstates a host of material facts. We intend to defend it vigorously.”

Fiat Chrysler said in a statement it had not been served with the lawsuit and therefore couldn’t comment. Volkswagen and Mercedes did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says only 21.8 million of the air bags recalled by Feb. 2 have been repaired. The defective safety devices from the now-bankrupt Japanese auto supplier were used in 37 million cars that have been recalled.

Go to to check if your car has an unresolved recall; you’ll need the 17-character vehicle identification number located at the lower left of your car’s windshield.

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing