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The Machinations behind a Defective Airbag Settlement, Takata CEO Shielded

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Jacksonville, FLWhen the airbag injuries lawsuit originally brought by airbag injury victim Patricia Mincey suddenly settled last month, all eyes had been focused on the possibility that Takata CEO Shigehisa Takada might have been called to testify in the case.

There had been no expectation of a negotiated settlement, due to the circumstances surrounding the deployment of the Takata airbag in the victim’s 2001 Honda, and the particular airbag injuries suffered by the plaintiff. Quick to settle previous airbag lawsuits, Takata had been pushing hard against this one, given that the airbag in the Mincey lawsuit had actually not ruptured.

However, at the eleventh hour - and moments before a judge in Jacksonville, Florida could have compelled the Takata CEO to testify based on evidence produced during discovery - Takata offered to settle. “I had no expectations at all,” of a settlement, said Theodore J. Leopold, the attorney representing the family of the victim, in comments published in The New York Times (7/16/16). “We were preparing to go to trial.”

Terms of the sudden settlement were not disclosed.

Mincey was driving her 2001 Honda Civic on June 15, 2014 when a collision compelled the Takata airbag in her car to deploy. Rather than a complete rupture, which previous defective airbags have been known to do, the Takata airbag in Mincey’s car remained intact. However the force of the deployment crushed Mincey’s spine, according to the New York Times report, and she was left a quadriplegic.

She died this past April at the age of 77.

Airbags - originally designed as an aid to heritage safety features such as lap belts and shoulder harnesses - have become increasingly available in even small, compact cars. Driver’s side air airbags were soon augmented by front passenger airbags, then side curtain airbags throughout the vehicle. The idea has been to surround the passenger compartment with airbag protection, thus helping to protect occupants in frontal, as well as side (T-bone) collisions.

Vehicle manufacturers, eager to capitalize on the popularity of airbags and to build increased levels of safety into their cars and trucks, have competed hard against their rivals to include as many safety features as possible in their vehicles in order to achieve optimum safety ratings. More vehicle owners are turning to such safety tests and ratings, not to mention learned evaluations from automotive writers and published pundits, before deciding on a vehicle to purchase.

In recent years however, defective airbags have been found to increase airbag injuries, rather than mitigate them.

In the Takata case, propellants responsible for quickly inflating an airbag have been found to degrade over time when exposed to moisture and fluctuations in temperature - the latter leading to the former. Such issues would be especially pronounced in northern climates and the upper states, where temperatures fall well below freezing in winter and then rise to hot and humid conditions in summer.

Such instability in propellants can cause metal casings containing the defective airbags to rupture, sending shrapnel and shards of metal directly towards the victim. Plaintiffs in airbag lawsuits are alleged to have suffered serious airbag injuries, including but not limited to lacerations and in some cases puncture of major arteries like the carotid, eye injuries, and more. Many have died from injuries police have likened to stab wounds. Others have been blinded or paralyzed.

The New York Times reports that Takata airbags have been linked to 15 deaths and more than 100 injuries. An airbag recall for the type of airbag in Mincey’s 2001 Honda was initiated a week after her accident in 2014.

Takada is identified as the grandson of Takata’s founder, and has signaled his intent to step down as Takata CEO. Meanwhile, a myriad of confidential documents gathered during pretrial proceedings in the Mincey case have proven damning to Takata.

Mincey - as other plaintiffs have done - alleged that Takata knew about potential airbag failure, but failed to act on that knowledge. According to minutes of a meeting at Honda’s American headquarters in Torrance, California and unsealed as part of Mincey’s case, a Honda official pressed Shigehisa Takada as to the extent of the defect in mid-2009. “I am constantly worrying how far it spreads out,” Hidenobu Iwata, the Honda official, told Mr. Takada and other Takata executives at the meeting, according to the minutes. “I want you to study the reason quickly.”

An engineer identified only as Otaka pressed Takata on the reasons for the defect, according to an account of the document contents in The New York Times. “Why does the propellant deteriorate with age? Why does it explode?

“I want to know the truth.”

Mincey also sued American Honda Motor Co. Inc. (Honda), amongst other defendants. Mincey and Honda arrived at a previous settlement. The lawsuit is Mincey v. Takata Corporation et al, Case No. 15CA000377 Div CV-E, in the Circuit Court, Fourth Judicial Circuit in and for Duval County, Florida

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