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Did Takata Manipulate Air Bag Testing Data?

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How much did Takata know about its defective air bags before it started to recall and repair them?

That remains an important question for investigators and plaintiffs who have filed lawsuits against the company. A recent New York Times report indicates that Takata employees were aware of the problem back in 2006, as newly obtained company emails suggest that the company manipulated test data to cast a better light on the safety of their air bag inflators.

Happy Manipulating of Air Bag Test Data

A number of documents were recently unsealed as part of a personal injury lawsuit against Takata. Plaintiffs seek to hold the company liable for defectively designing its air bags. The safety devices have, in some cases, exploded upon deployment, sending shrapnel into the interior of the vehicle and injuring occupants, sometimes so severely that they died.

Among the documents were some emails that some allege indicate Takata purposely manipulated testing data. One dated July 6, 2006, for example, was sent by air bag engineer Bob Schubert, and was entitled “Happy Manipulating!!!” A second email from Schubert referenced changing a graphic to “divert attention” from the test results and “to try to dress it up.” Both emails were referring to tests done on the air bag inflators, which contained the now-controversial propellant, ammonium nitrate.

Takata switched to this propellant in 2001, despite employee concerns about its stability. The chemical is known to be vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity, and it’s precisely these factors that were later named as factors in many Takata air bag explosions. In November 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) fined Takata $70 million for their mishandling of the issue, and required that it phase out the use of ammonium nitrate unless it could prove its safety.

Emails Indicate Employees Concerned about Data Manipulation

The Times also references an internal company report created by American Takata employees in 2000. According to the report, the employees were concerned about the air bag test results that were sent to Honda, the company’s biggest customer when it comes to air bags. The report indicated that “pressure vessel failures,” also known as air bag ruptures, were reported as normal deployments to the automaker.

Indeed, in November 2015, Honda announced that it would no longer use Takata as a supplier for air bags, stating that the company had “misrepresented and manipulated test data.” Honda added that it had reached that conclusion after reviewing thousands of Takata documents. The company has requested a third-party audit of Takata’s test data.

Mr. Schubert stated in a 2005 memo to a colleague that he remained concerned about the fudging of the data, and was concerned that what the company was doing “now most likely constitutes fraud.”

Takata stated that the emails did not constitute manipulation and were not related to the current air bag recalls, and that Schubert was only referring to the formatting of a presentation.

Millions of Vehicles Recalled for Air Bag Repairs

The number of lawsuits brought against Takata for air bag problems continues to increase. All federally filed cases were consolidated into the Southern District of Florida about a year ago. The company has recalled over 19 million vehicles in the U.S., but that number, too, continues to climb. Just a few weeks ago, Mazda announced an additional 375,000 vehicles as needing air bag repairs.