OLYMPIA — Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently announced that automaker Honda must change its corporate practices as a result of an investigation by state attorneys general into Honda’s use of defective, dangerous airbags made by Takata, a now-defunct manufacturer that worked closely with Honda.
According to the Attorney General’s Office (AGO), for 15 years, in dozens of its models, Honda used Takata-made airbags that could explode during inflation, expelling debris and shrapnel at drivers and passengers. The state’s complaint asserts Honda had independent information showing the airbags were dangerous years before a recall was issued, yet failed to adequately warn the public and still advertised its vehicles as safe. The ruptures resulted in at least 14 deaths and over 200 injuries nationwide.
The consent decree, filed in King County Superior Court, is an enforcement action intended to change Honda’s internal practices to protect consumers. As a result of the consent decree, Honda is legally required to implement new safety measures to improve consumer safety. These new safety reforms include improved quality control, enhanced whistleblower protections and additional supplier oversight. The purpose of these corporate reforms is to prevent similar fraud that endangers consumer safety in the future.
The AGO maintains that Honda installed defective Takata airbags in more than 306,000 vehicles in Washington, part of more than 12.4 million cars nationwide. Honda has already repaired about 80 percent of affected Washington vehicles. While so far no deaths related to the airbags have been reported in Washington, a little over 56,000 of these vehicles are still unrepaired.
“Honda had countless opportunities over more than a decade to protect consumers from a dangerous — and sometimes deadly — defect in its airbags,” Ferguson said. “Instead, they worked closely with Takata and repeatedly turned a blind eye to the company’s fraud. We will hold accountable companies that mislead consumers and put the public in danger.”
In the late ‘90s, new safety regulations required automakers to install improved frontal airbags in new cars after reports surfaced showing that existing airbags deployed with a dangerous amount of force. Honda asked Takata to develop new airbag designs that complied with the safety requirements.
AGO maintains that Takata experimented with the chemical ammonium nitrate to inflate its airbags. Ammonium nitrate is very inexpensive and ignites quickly — yet is known to be highly unstable and vulnerable to degradation caused by heat and humidity.
Takata claimed it had developed what it described as “phase-stabilized” ammonium nitrate. The AGO alleged that the company provided Honda with fabricated test results demonstrating that its airbag inflators performed as required by Honda’s specifications. However, Takata hid the real test data showing that its propellant burned so aggressively and generated so much excess pressure that the airbags’ inflator module would explode, expelling debris and shrapnel at the driver or passengers.
From the outset, the complaint asserts, Honda had information indicating that the airbags were problematic and posed an unreasonable safety risk. Early testing demonstrated explosive failures, one of which was powerful enough that the force of the blast injured a Honda employee.
Starting in 2001, Honda incorporated these airbags into dozens of models — the first company to do so. In 2004, an airbag installed in a Honda Accord ruptured during an accident. The complaint asserts that by 2007, Honda knew about three other ruptures that occurred in cars on the road.
Honda and Takata engineers blamed the ruptures on problems with Takata’s production processes, which Takata claimed had already been fixed. In response, Honda issued a partial recall of the airbags.
Honda and Takata went on to identify multiple other problems with Takata’s manufacturing and parts-tracking practices, all of which resulted in several partial recalls in the years that followed. None of these recalls addressed the ammonium nitrate propellant.
According to the AGO, one of Honda’s own engineers identified serious safety deficiencies, resulting in a redesign of the airbags. However, the state’s complaint asserts Honda didn’t warn owners of vehicles with the original airbags that they posed a safety risk, nor did the company inform regulators of the redesign.
In November 2015, after numerous deaths and injuries were linked to the propellant, the federal government ordered a recall of all frontal airbags using an ammonium nitrate propellant. It wasn’t until this federal mandate — 15 years after it first installed Takata airbags in its vehicles — that Honda issued a full, blanket recall of the airbags.
In 2017, Takata pled guilty in a separate criminal proceeding, admitting that it had fabricated the test data it provided to Honda as part of initial reviews of the airbags. Takata eventually shut down after it filed for bankruptcy. Since the bankruptcy and criminal proceedings focused largely on Takata’s fraud, Honda was treated solely as a victim in those proceedings.
However, Ferguson asserts Honda had enough independent information to know that the airbags were dangerous and to warn consumers about them for years before the federal recall. The states’ complaint asserts that Honda was closely involved in the development of the airbags. Honda was Takata’s largest customer for airbags — in fact, Honda owned a portion of the company at one point.
Ferguson asserts Honda violated the Washington State Consumer Protection Act when, despite being aware of information indicating that the airbags were problematic and posed an unreasonable safety risk, the company advertised its vehicles were safe and failed to act to protect consumers.
Under the consent decree, Honda is legally required to implement new protections against future fraud and dangerous defects, including:
• Fail-safe safety features in new vehicles designed to protect vehicle occupants in the event of an airbag explosion;
• A ban on any misleading advertisements and point-of-sale representations regarding the safety of Honda’s frontal airbags;
• Improvements in risk management, quality control, supplier oversight, training and certifications;
• Mandatory whistleblower protections;
• Improvements in Honda’s oversight of frontal airbags suppliers, including a mandate that Honda and its suppliers abide by certain industry performance standards;
• Improvements to record keeping and parts tracking; and
• Independently approving designs and performance of all frontal airbags before considering them for use in new vehicles.
In addition to these legally required corporate reforms, the company will also pay Washington state $1.8 million. The money will go toward recouping the cost of the investigation and supporting future enforcement of the Consumer Protection Act.
Consumers who own a Honda or Acura vehicle are encouraged to visit Honda’s airbag recall website at https://hondaairbaginfo.com, or call its customer service toll-free number at (888) 234-2138, to see if their vehicle is subject to a recall. Consumers may also check for open recalls by going to nhtsa.gov/recalls. All safety recall repairs are free at authorized Honda dealers.
Honda reached a separate class action settlement in 2017 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Under the settlement, Honda paid $605 million to provide consumer restitution, a rental car program and support for consumers in need of airbag replacement. Check to see if you are still eligible to file a claim at autoairbagsettlement.com.