So far, more than 69 million airbag inflators in the United States have been recalled — the largest car-related recall in United States history. Takata's CEO, Shigehisa Takada, told reporters at a Monday press conference that bankruptcy was the only option if the company was to continue replacing the millions more airbags left — and compensating victims who were severely injured or whose families are still feeling the sting of their deaths.
Of the 11 deaths in the United States, two were in the Houston area.
In one case, a 17-year-old girl was killed after getting into a minor fender bender — the day after she had filled out her college application for Wharton Junior College, where she planned to study to become a nurse. On impact, the airbag in Huma Hanif's 2002 Honda Accord exploded, sending metal shrapnel into her face and severing vital arteries. While the other driver was uninjured, Hanif was bleeding out on the side of the road, where she had collapsed.
"Nobody deserves to be killed by a safety device," Hanif's family's attorney, Mo Azziz, told reporters at a press conference, announcing the wrongful death lawsuit Hanif's family filed against Takata.
One year earlier, a Houston man who was also driving a 2002 Honda Accord died in his brother's arms after shrapnel from his car's Takata airbag shot into his neck following a minor fender bender. Carlos Solis's family also filed a lawsuit against Takata.
One of the main focuses of the suits is the fact that Takata apparently knew just how dangerous its airbags were for years — yet did nothing to correct the problem. In February, the company pleaded guilty to fraud, admitting that it had concealed the fatal flaws causing the airbags to detonate like bombs.
So here's how that works: The chemical that's used to propel the airbags is ammonium nitrate, which, as Aziz notes in his lawsuit, has a long history of blowing up without warning. As we explained in our 2016 story:
To see if your car is in need of an airbag replacement, enter your VIN number into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's handy search engine here. Or peruse the makes and models affected here.
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.