On July 15, 2016, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC led by Theodore J. Leopold, resolved a closely watched lawsuit against the Japanese company and airbag maker, Takata, involving the injury and eventual death of a woman whose car was involved in a minor accident in 2014.The resolution was announced moments before a critical hearing in which a judge in Jacksonville, Florida could have considered allowing punitive damages and a civil deposition for the company’s chief executive, Shigehisa Takada.
Patricia Mincey, a Florida woman, was catastrophically injured and rendered paralyzed from the neck down when a Takata airbag inflator forcefully exploded in her 2001 Honda Civic in a minor motor vehicle collision in June 2014. Less than a week later, the airbag in her vehicle was among those recalled by Honda. Ms. Mincey alleged in her lawsuit, filed the following year, that the Takata Corporation had knowingly designed and manufactured airbags that were defective and dangerous. Sadly her condition continued to deteriorate and she passed away in April 2016 at age 77 after spending nearly two years in a hospital unable to move and hooked up to a ventilator.
Takata airbag inflators have been linked to as many as 14 deaths worldwide, including 13 Honda vehicles, because they can deploy with too much force, causing the inflator to explode and sending deadly metal fragments flying towards the driver or passengers. Ruptures also have resulted in more than 100 serious injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Despite this, Takata executives allegedly concealed the full extent of the defect from consumers and implemented a strategy to quickly settle claims and lawsuits in which airbags were blamed for deaths and injuries, rather than fully inform the public of the airbag defect. Initially Takata had resisted settling Mincey’s case.
The January 2015 complaint filed by attorneys at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll on behalf of Patricia Mincey and her daughter, Kelly Sims, alleged that in Mincey’s collision, the airbag didn’t rupture but forcefully deployed, breaking her neck. According to the lawsuit Takata concealed the defective nature of their airbag systems–including potential overpowered deployment–from consumers for more than a decade prior to the Patricia Mincey’s accident. Furthermore, the lawsuit charged that Takata violated the law by failing to report, under reporting, or omitting important report information regarding the defect to the NHTSA.
“Product liability cases like this one often unveil a pattern of defrauding consumers in order to protect manufacturer profits,” said Theodore Leopold of Cohen Milstein. “Sadly, a massive human cost, such as that sustained by Patricia Mincey and her family, is often paid before a recall is issued. The only way to hold automotive companies accountable is through aggressive litigation.”
Although the lawsuit was resolved, it has direct bearing on a separate class action suit and other potential complaints against Takata Corporation. For one, the Mincey lawsuit turned up numerous disclosures about the company’s handling of defective airbags. In the course of months of pretrial hearings, Takata was forced to hand over thousands of pages of internal documents that pointed to the faking of test results by its engineers. About a dozen Takata officials were deposed.
Through the course of this and other litigation, Leopold said the opportunity to learn more about the airbag issue has been revealed to consumers, government and automakers. The work done on this lawsuit will “lift the veil” of some unknown issues, even though they did not get Takata’s CEO to testify on the stand. The Mincey lawsuit is separate from a class action lawsuit that is currently pending against the Takata Corporation brought by owners of affected cars and is the subject of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department. It is unknown how many other similar lawsuits are currently pending against Takata.
Takata still faces one of the largest recalls in history. Nearly 100 million Takata inflators have been declared unsafe worldwide. The mass recalls of Takata airbags gained new urgency in May 2016, when federal safety regulators warned the public that airbags in more than 300,000 older Honda and Acura vehicles were at an unacceptably high risk of exploding and needed to be replaced immediately. Fourteen carmakers were affected, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration expanded the recall to include an additional 35 to 40 million U.S. airbag inflators by 2019.