Takata Hid Findings on Air Bag Failures, Ex-Worker Testifies

International New York Times

February 15, 2016

Engineer says devices ruptured in internal testing as early as 2000

As the safety crisis surrounding Takata's air bags that are prone to rupture has mushroomed, the Japanese auto supplier has insisted that the propellant in its air bags is safe.

But on Friday, testimony in a Florida court showed that Takata's own engineers discarded evidence that may have shown otherwise as long as 16 years ago. As early as 2000, around the time the propellant, which includes a compound called ammonium nitrate, was introduced into Takata models, failures occurred during internal testing.

But Takata altered its test data to hide the failures from its biggest customer, Honda, its longtime partner, and a senior Takata executive ordered some of the evidence be discarded, the testimony said.

Thomas Sheridan, a former Takata air bag engineer, was questioned this year as part of a lawsuit brought by a Florida woman who was paralyzed after her Takata air bag deployed too forcefully during an accident in her 2001 Honda Civic in June 2014. On Friday, her lawyers disclosed the testimony during a hearing over what evidence should be allowed at trial.

Mr. Sheridan said in his deposition that he had tried to examine air bag parts that had failed a series of performance tests included in a June 2000 report to Honda Motor.

But he said that he had found the parts had been discarded under orders from Takata's vice president for engineering at the time, Al Bernat. Mr. Bernat has also been tied to a series of air bag tests in 2004, in which former Takata test engineers have said that evidence was also discarded.

''I had the data but I wanted to go look for those parts,'' Mr. Sheridan was quoted as saying in the deposition. ''But when I went to look for the parts, because some of the parts had come apart, they were no longer available. They had been discarded.''

Takata declined a request for an interview with Mr. Bernat, who still works for the company. A company spokesman said it ''believes that the lawsuit is without merit and intends to defend itself vigorously.''

Takata did not report the failures to Honda, according to court documents. Instead, it manipulated data to hide results that showed the propellant could combust violently, causing its casingócalled an inflateróto overpressurize and rupture, according to the documents. In several instances, ''pressure vessel failures,'' or air bag ruptures, were reported to Honda as normal air bag deployments, the documents said.

''I think this was a complete breakdown of the entire organization to provide a safe product,'' Mr. Sheridan said in his deposition.

Asked whether he was surprised that Takata air bags had since been linked to deaths and injuries, he responded no.

''I didn't think it would take so long for the failures to show up,'' he said. ''It took a lot longer than I thought.''

Takata's air bag inflaters, which can overpressurize and explode when they deploy, have been linked to 10 deaths and over 100 injuries.

Allan Kam, a safety expert who worked for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1975 to 2000, called Takata's supposed disposal of evidence and manipulation ''unbelievable.''

''From a public safety standpoint, it's deplorable behavior,'' Mr. Kam said. ''If it were just a cosmetic thing, it would be deplorable behavior. But people could get maimed and killed by this defect.''

On Nov. 3, American safety regulators fined Takata $70 million for failing to promptly disclose defects in its air bags, and accused the company of manipulating test data, a penalty that could grow by $130 million if the company does not live up to its agreement with the agency.

The same day, Honda Motor dropped Takata as its air bag supplier, concluding that the company had misrepresented and manipulated test data.

Ted Leopold, the lawyer for the Florida woman, Patricia Mincey, presented examples of Takata engineers in both Japan and the United States seemingly manipulating data over years.

In one report on air bag tests, dated 2007 and also prepared for Honda, five of nine data points that appeared in Takata's original data were not included in the version submitted to Honda, according to the court documents.

Chris Martin, a Honda spokesman, reiterated that the carmaker was ''aware of evidence that suggests that Takata misrepresented and manipulated test data.''

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