Senate seeks Takata documents
Honda Motor Co. told federal regulators Monday it had made a series of significant mistakes in failing to report more than 1,700 incidents known as “early warning reports” required under a 2000 federal law, while a Senate committee asked air bag manufacturer Takata Corp. to turn over documents.
The developments come amid rising scrutiny of faulty Takata air bags linked to at least five deaths and 30 injuries.
Honda’s admission means the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could opt to impose fines of up to $35 million on the Japanese automaker. It’s the latest problem Honda has faced in the wake of at least five deaths from faulty air bags — including four in the United States. Defective Takata Corp. air bags among more than 6 million vehicles have been recalled in seven separate campaigns since 2008; air bag inflators can send metal fragments flying at passengers and drivers.
The reporting requirements are designed to help the auto safety agency spot safety trends earlier. They are required under the TREAD Act, which was approved by Congress after 270 reported deaths in Ford SUVs were linked to faulty Firestone tires.
Honda blamed a faulty computer program and inadvertent data entry errors as reasons for failing to report problems, but the automaker also said it didn’t do enough to fix the problem. It pledged staffing and organization changes as well as more training.
After reports surfaced that Honda hadn’t complied with reporting requirements, it commissioned an audit in September to determine how often and why it failed to comply with the requirements; it briefed NHTSA on the preliminary findings on Oct. 17. NHTSA on Nov. 3 issued a special order requiring Honda to answer detailed questioned about its failures by Monday.
NHTSA chief counsel Kevin Vincent said the agency has received Honda’s response to its special order. He said the agency has no timetable to respond to Honda.
Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, said, “NHTSA should impose the maximum $35 million penalty under the Safety Act and refer the case to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution to determine if the concealment was deliberate.”
Also Monday, two U.S. senators — Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, chairman of the Commerce Committee, and Bill Nelson, D-Florida — sent a letter asking Takata to answer detailed questions and turn over significant documents about the worldwide recall of more than 14 million vehicles by at least 10 automakers. They want to know how long it will take Takata to make enough replacement inflators for all automakers, and when it will reach maximum production.
Last week in testimony before Congress, Honda said its recall look-up system was making mistakes and that a Florida dealer failed to repair a woman’s Civic that had been recalled for Takata air bags that ruptured in her face, causing serious injuries.
A House Energy and Commerce Committee panel will hold a hearing Dec. 3 on the recall.
The company faces many lawsuits and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York is conducting a criminal investigation into Takata. Honda held a media call Monday where an executive read a statement, but the company refused to take questions, citing “sensitive legal matters.”
A Honda employee recognized an issue related to the recording of a verbal date code in the legal file management system in 2011 and believed that it could have affected the accuracy of the reports; however, Honda said there was no follow-up. NHTSA made Honda aware of its under-reporting reports in early January 2012.
Of the 1,729 written claims and notices Honda did not report to NHTSA, eight involved Takata air bag inflator ruptures — including one in which a person was killed and seven in which people were injured. Honda said all eight claims were disclosed to NHTSA in detail by other means. .
Also Monday, law firm Motley Rice LLC, one of the nation’s largest plaintiffs’ firms, filed a products liability action alleging the wrongful death of a South Carolina woman related to a Takata air bag and suing both Takata and Honda. The suit cites the 2008 death of Mary Lyon Wolfe, a Charleston resident, in a 2002 Honda Accord that contained a now-recalled Takata air bag.
“A company that manufactures and sells air bags in automobiles must take all necessary steps to ensure that its products — which can literally mean the difference between life and death in an accident — function as promised and intended,” said Kevin Dean, Motley Rice attorney. “In the case of Mrs. Wolfe, we believe that the Takata air bag in her Honda Accord ultimately caused her death. We allege that the defendants involved participated in a deadly cover-up that is just now coming to light, much too late, unfortunately.”