Detroit – A class action lawsuit is filed against three automakers and a parts manufacturer for knowingly selling vehicles with airbag inflators at risk of explosion. Two were killed and at least four were injured in what became known as the Cold War.
A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Francisco named ARC Automotive Inc. of Knoxville, Tennessee, which manufactures inflators and sells them to airbag manufacturers. The airbag makers, instead, sold them to General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen, whose names are also in the lawsuit.
The five plaintiffs are car owners with ARC inflators who argue that parts of the defective airbags were not disclosed at the time of their purchase.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been investigating ARC inflators for nearly seven years, without any resolution, estimates that there are 51 million on U.S. roads. This is between 10% and 20% of all passenger vehicles.
Yet most drivers have no definitive way to determine if they have an ARC inflator in their car. Even if they break the steering wheel assembly, the interior can only carry the mark of the automaker or airbag manufacturer, not the inflator manufacturer.
“You may have a ticking time bomb in your lap and you have no way of knowing,” said Frank Melton, a lawyer in Florida who is among the new plaintiffs.
One of the dead was a mother of 10 who was killed in an otherwise minor accident on the highlands of Michigan last summer. Police reports show that a piece of metal inflatter hit his neck in an accident involving a 2015 Chevrolet Travers SUV.
In a statement Tuesday, GM said there was no opportunity to review the case. It said it was dedicated to the safety of its products and customers and was cooperating with NHTSA in its investigation.
There were 6 messages left for comment from ARC and Ford Volkswagen declined to comment.
Plaintiffs allege that ARC inflators use ammonium nitrate as a secondary propellant to inflate airbags. The propellant is pressed into tablets that can expand and develop microscopic pores when exposed to moisture. Degraded tablets have a larger surface area, so they burn more quickly and can burn too much in an explosion, according to the case.
The explosion could blow up a metal canister containing chemicals, sending metal holes into the cabin. Ammonium nitrate, used as a fertilizer and a cheap explosive, is so dangerous that it can burn very quickly without moisture, the lawsuit says.
Plaintiffs allege that ARC inflators flew seven times on U.S. roads and twice more in tests by the ARC. Out of a total of about 5,000 vehicles, including three GM withdrawals, five have been withdrawn in limited quantities so far.
Auto safety advocates say the case appears to be a reflection of the Takata airbag story that began in the early 2000’s, involving explosive airbag inflators that killed 28 people worldwide, injured hundreds and is the largest automotive recall in U.S. history. So far the NHTSA has collected data but has not been forced to withdraw any details from the investigation, which began in July 2015.
Sean Kane, Safety Research and Strategies Inc. Its president, who conducts research for lawyers who sue automakers as well as other groups, noted that in the early stages of the money laundering, many ARC ammonium nitrate inflators remained in use.
“It’s almost like Groundhog Day here,” said Kane, who claims the NHTSA should have already worked. “It’s not a question of whether it can kill or injure people. It’s already there. “
The ARC was aware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate in patent applications filed in the 1995 and 1998 lawsuits. In 2019, after several ARC inflators were isolated, the ARC acknowledged that its use for automotive airbags was not acceptable, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that General Motors, which began withdrawing takata ammonium nitrate inflators in 2013, should have known that ARC inflation was also volatile.
The lawsuit states that “GM only recalled a small number of vehicles that had a certain amount of inflation, although it was aware that ARC driver- and passenger-side inflators also experienced bursts in various model and model years from 2002 to at least 2015”.
In its statement on Tuesday, GM said it decided to withdraw on the basis of information and data. It declined to comment further.
The lawsuit alleges that the ARC’s swells were damaged by a systemic problem rather than just a limited production error. In 2014, a 2004 Kia Optima ARC inflator in New Mexico crashed into an accident, injuring the driver.
Two years later, the driver of a car made by Kear’s sister automaker Hyundai was killed in Canada when an ARC inflator exploded in an accident.
Volkswagen and Ford have also been named as defendants in the lawsuit, alleging that they represented airbag inflators as safe despite knowing they were dangerous.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating ARC inflators in 2015 after a woman from Ohio was injured in an inflator explosion in a Chrysler minivan. At the time, the company estimated that there were 490,000 ARC inflators on the country’s roads.
After the death in Canada in 2016, the review was upgraded to an engineering analysis – one step closer to recalling a product.
Although a seven-year investigation is longer than most NHTSA reviews, the inflators are particularly complex, says David Friedman, a former NHTSA acting administrator who is now a vice president at the Consumer Report.
Friedman said automakers are feeling uncomfortable withdrawing because of the cost. And the NHTSA, he suggested, needs a “slam dunk” lawsuit before withdrawing because of threats and lawsuits filed by automakers in the past.
“It’s a thing that’s broken into the system,” he said.
Friedman described the NHTSA as a long-running grant-driven organization that has had to prioritize security issues four years after the Trump administration, which demanded much less federal control.
“It’s been seven years, the companies should have been blindsided, or the NHTSA should have done it, or if they don’t really have a lawsuit,” Friedman said.
An NHTSA official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on condition of anonymity said the investigation was ongoing because of the complexity of the airbag inflators and the design of the ARC.
“We want to make sure everything we do is thorough.” He said.
He noted that the NHTSA’s investigation into the ARC had to examine issues that differed from the case. Ammonium nitrate in takatar swells, for example, deteriorates when airborne moisture enters the canister. But the ARC puts pressure on its swelling canister to keep moisture away.
“It’s not similar to Takata,” the official said.
Whether ammonium nitrate tablets can go bad without moisture is still being investigated, he said.
The agency, he said, has recovered ARC inflators from vehicles to learn how they work. It collected production and other data from ARC and automakers and issued an order for automakers to report any problems with ARC inflators.
He noted that several years have passed without incident, before there were three in the last two years and is informing each of those cases.