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Eric T. Chaffin
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Did Early Takata Lawsuit Settlements Obscure Key Evidence?

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A settlement in a Takata airbag lawsuit is likely to sound like a good thing to plaintiffs who have suffered serious injuries. But sometimes such settlements can have another, less desirable effect—that of putting a lid on a potentially very dangerous issue.

According to a recent article in Bloomberg, several early lawsuits against Takata concerning defective airbags were settled out of court. In many cases, the parties came to an agreement before the attorneys had even gathered evidence.

Had these cases gone to trial, might the evidence have come to light sooner, preventing other injuries and deaths that have occurred because of a lack of awareness and industry action?

Accident Information Hidden by Settlements

Auto-safety advocate Ralph Nader told Bloomberg that some of the “best information” concerning safety issues comes out of product-liability lawsuits. When the parties settle, that information remains obscured. Plaintiff Jason Turchin, who reached a settlement with Takata, stated in an interview that the company wanted to resolve the issue quickly, almost as if they were trying to “shut us up.”

Turchin can’t talk about details of the case because of the agreement he signed—an example of how settlements can keep critical information from the general public, potentially allowing a defect to cause additional accidents, injuries, and deaths.

Takata has come under fire for its inadequate handling of the defective airbag issue. The first recalls occurred in 2001, but involved only about 4,000 Izuzu vehicles. Thirteen years later, that number has increased to about 14 million worldwide.

Company tests have indicated the problem is one that affects the propellant in the air bag, which is said to deteriorate in climates of high humidity. This, combined with issues in the manufacturing process, can increase risk of explosion on airbag deployment.

Lawsuits Filed Before Major Recalls

Takata isn’t the only company to pursue settlements in an effort to resolve litigation and maintain confidentiality on safety issues. In this case, however, “business as usual” combined with Takata’s slow response to the issue may have led to additional injuries and deaths that could have been prevented.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has also been criticized for failing to press Takata harder about the recalls years ago. Only recently, for example, did they demand a nationwide recall of all affected driver’s side airbags. Along with the order, they required Takata and carmakers to submit all documents related to testing of the airbags.

Bloomberg notes that about a dozen lawsuits were filed against carmakers and Takata prior to this year’s more encompassing recalls. Some of those are in settlement negotiations now. Pressure from the NHTSA and some Congressmen has increased awareness of the issue, however, and as car makers respond to the NHTSA’s order to submit all documents related to airbag testing, more evidence may soon come to light that creates a more complete picture of the defect and the missteps along the way.