It was hardly more than a fender bender.
On January 18 this year, Carlos Solis was turning left into the Spring Park Apartments complex in north Harris County when he collided with an oncoming car. The vehicles hit with enough force to deploy the airbags inside Solis's 2002 Honda Accord. Still, Solis and his passenger* were wearing their seat belts, and damage to the car looked pretty minor — a mangled bumper and a crushed driver's side headlamp.
Solis's passenger was unscathed. But when the car rolled to a stop, Solis's brother, Scott, emerged from the apartment complex and saw that Carlos was bleeding profusely from the neck. Scott tried to stop the bleeding but couldn't. He held his brother's head as Carlos struggled to breathe through a torn windpipe. Carlos ultimately died in his brother's arms.
What appears to have killed Carlos Solis is now the subject of what's expected to be the largest recall of any consumer product in U.S. history. For more than a decade, customers have filed complaints with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, saying faulty airbags were exploding and maiming drivers when deployed, even during relatively minor wrecks. This week, on the heels of ever-expanding recalls and a federal investigation into the matter, Japanese airbag manufacturer Takata admitted to fundamental design flaws in its airbags and said that some 34 million cars and trucks in the United States — a staggering one out of every seven cars on the road — may contain the dangerously defective product, effectively doubling the already massive national recall efforts under way.
The shrapnel-shooting airbags are believed to have caused numerous injuries and at least six deaths, including Solis's.
According to a lawsuit Solis's surviving family members have filed in Harris County, as well as reporting from The New York Times last year, Takata knew as early as 2004 that there were serious problems with its airbags. The issue centers on the so-called airbag inflater, a metal casing inside the steering column that houses ammonium nitrate, the chemical propellant that emits gases to inflate the airbag cushion upon impact. The Times reports that more than a decade ago, Takata engineers warned the company that, among other problems with the airbag's design, ammonium nitrate was too sensitive to moisture and temperature swings (according to the lawsuit filed in Harris County, no other airbag manufacturer uses the chemical).
“Those test results were buried at the executive level of decision makers for the companies,” alleges the lawsuit Solis's family has filed against Takata, Honda and All Stars Auto Sales, the local dealership that sold Solis the 2002 Honda Accord with a defective airbag in April 2014, despite the vehicle having already been recalled. “Carlos had no idea he was driving a car with a shrapnel bomb inside the steering wheel,” the lawsuit states. (The teenage girl driving the car that collided with Solis, as well as the girl's mother, who owned the car, are also listed as defendants; considering a crash report faults Solis in the wreck, it's likely a judge will toss the case against them in the coming months.)
The problem with Takata airbags seems to be of particular concern in humid areas, like along the Texas Gulf Coast. This week, for the first time, Takata admitted in regulatory filings that testing has shown that leaks in the inflaters can allow for moisture to seep in over time, making the propellant more likely to explode violently upon impact. When that happens, the explosion can dislodge pieces of the metal canister, sending shrapnel flying through the airbag and into the driver.
Stephanie Erdman, a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force from San Antonio, testified before a U.S. Senate hearing last year how, in 2013, an exploding airbag sent a piece of twisted metal into her eye when her airbag deployed in a car accident. Houston Attorney Rob Ammons, who represented Erdman in her lawsuit against Takata filed in Bexar County last year (Honda and Takata eventually settled the case), immediately suspected a faulty airbag when he heard how Solis had died during a seemingly minor wreck.
“There was blood all over the inside of the car,” Ammons said. “When I heard the description of what happened, I thought 'Oh no, we've got another death because of this problem.' ”
His suspicions were confirmed when the autopsy results came back. When Solis crashed, a large round piece of metal from the airbag inflater flew through cushion fabric, shooting it deep into Solis's neck “with an explosive force severe enough to lodge the metal into his cervical spine and shoulder,” according to the lawsuit. The shrapnel had severed Solis's carotid artery, his jugular vein, and had torn through the cartilage in his throat.
For months Takata had resisted attempts to expand its recall and refused to cooperate with a NHTSA investigation. In an unprecedented move, the agency in February began fining Takata $14,000 a day for failing to cooperate with its investigation, amassing a $1.2 million fine that was suspended this week when Takata agreed to expand the recall. Takata's chairman and chief executive told the Washington Post that the company was “pleased to have reached this agreement with NHTSA, which presents a clear path forward to advancing safety and restoring the trust of automakers and the driving public.”
Ammons insists that Takata's new filings with the NHTSA, which acknowledge serious defects that engineers and others have long suspected, “evidence a complete and total betrayal of public trust. ... It reinforces the fact that Takata attempted to limit this to anomalies in their manufacturing process, when indeed evidence and experience showed that it was a design issue that was pervasive."
Ultimately, it was a defective product intended to save Solis's life that killed him, Ammons says. “The only cause of these injuries was the airbag inflater,” Ammons said. “It wasn't the crash. Everybody else walked away.”
To see if your car has yet been added to the recall list, enter your Vehicle Identification (VIN) number at SaferCar.gov. Even if your car doesn't show up, remember that the scope of the recall still remains unclear. NHTSA has said that automakers still haven’t provided a complete list of all vehicles affected by Takata's expanded recall. And, as the Houston Chronicle reports, it could be a long road ahead as dealerships brace for what federal regulators are already calling the most complex consumer safety recall in U.S. history.
*Correction 5/23/15: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the passenger in Solis's car.