"Just Like a Hand Grenade," a 17-Year-Old's Air Bag Exploded and Killed Her, Lawsuit says

Huma Hanif's car after the accident, which her attorney says Hanif should've walked away from.
Huma Hanif's car after the accident, which her attorney says Hanif should've walked away from.
Courtesy of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend law firm

The night before 17-year-old Huma Hanif was killed by the air bag intended to save her life, she was filling out an application to Wharton Junior College. She had planned to go to school and become a nurse like her sister. But those plans were cut short after an otherwise minor car accident that, according to Hanif's attorney, she should have easily walked away from.

When Hanif's air bag deployed, it essentially exploded, shooting shrapnel into Hanif's neck and severing vital arteries. While the other driver walked away just fine, Hanif collapsed on the road outside her 2002 Honda Accord, bleeding to death.

Now, her family has filed a lawsuit against Takata, the manufacturer of the airbag, against American Honda and against everyone who inspected their daughter's car, who should have caught what attorney Mo Aziz said Takata has known for more than 20 years: that the chemical used to propel its airbags, ammonium nitrate, has a long history of blowing up without warning.

“Nobody deserves to be killed by their own vehicle,” Aziz said at a press conference Wednesday. “Nobody deserves to be killed by a safety device.”

Hanif is the tenth person in the country, and the second in the Houston area, to die from this dangerous air bag malfunction. Last year, Takata openly admitted for the first time that its airbags were dangerous, leading to the recall of roughly 34 million vehicles — the largest recall in American history, according to The New York Times. While the Times reported that Takata had run tests on the airbags and found defects as early as 2004 (something the manufacturer denied), according to this lawsuit, Takata acknowledged in a patent as early as 1995 that ammonium nitrate can detonate. And to Aziz and Hanif's family, it doesn't make much sense, then, that Takata decided to put it in a device designed to save lives.

The explosive chemical is the same one that leaked and blew up a West, Texas, plant in 2013, killing 15 people, and the same one that killed more than 600 people after an explosion at a Texas City plant in 1942. Aziz said that the amount of ammonium nitrate in these airbags has about 45 percent of the detonation strength a hand grenade has. The chemical is encased by metal — the metal that lodged in Hanif's neck when her airbag deployed — yet it is still highly sensitive to temperature and moisture changes, which makes hotter climates like Houston's even more susceptible to the hazard. The ammonium nitrate frequently goes through “thermal cycles,” which causes the chemical to break down. At a certain point, in temperatures around 90 degrees, it can combust rapidly and explode upon impact. Which is exactly what happened inside Hanif's car, Aziz said.

“Just like a hand grenade, when the detonation happens, the [metal] container fragments, and when it fragments, it goes in the direction it's pointed in,” Aziz said. “In these airbags, it's pointed toward the car's occupants, unfortunately — extremely unfortunately for families like the Hanif family, that had to lose a loved one based on poor scientific planning and not following basic safety principles.”

Even though Honda recalled vehicles with the defective airbags, Aziz said the recall notifications were not nearly sufficient, otherwise the Hanif family would've promptly returned their loved one's car. Aziz said it's not entirely clear for now the extent to which other inspectors or mechanics failed to notify the Hanif family. But what is clear to him is that Takata, even though all other air bag manufacturers use different, safer chemicals, decided for some reason to use a notoriously volatile and explosive one. 

Uzma Hanif, the girl's older sister, won't get to see her best friend graduate to become a nurse. They were so close, in fact, that Uzma says she rarely made any new friends, because her sister was all she needed. Her brother Faizal also spoke at a press conference Wednesday, sharing bits and pieces about his sister Huma and calling her the "light of all our lives." He hoped Takata was listening, and he asked the company to please finally do something about the problem so that no more lives are taken by a device meant to save them.

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