Lawsuit targets allegedly-exploding car airbags

(BCN) – A 95-page nationwide class action complaint filed in federal court in San Francisco asserts that airbags with a defective product design were installed in “tens of millions” of cars made by Ford, General Motors, Audi and Volkswagen and allegedly have a “dangerous propensity to rupture and eject metal shrapnel” into the vehicle.

The complaint was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy LLP, a San Francisco firm known for representing consumers in litigation over product safety defects. The firm served as lead class counsel in litigation against Volkswagen over alleged misrepresented emissions information concerning its diesel engines.

The suit concerns a product with the name “toroidal stored gas hybrid airbag inflators,” manufactured by ARC Automotive Inc. of Knoxville, Tennessee. The devices are a component part of safety airbags — on either the driver or passenger sides of a car — that are deployed upon collision to protect the driver or passenger from hitting the steering wheel or dashboard.

The inflator — the airbag part in question — contains a quantity of stored gas that expands rapidly (filling the safety cushion) when heated. The heating occurs when a “propellant” in the inflator is ignited.

The alleged problem with the ARC device is the choice of the propellant. The complaint alleges that the devices use the chemical ammonium nitrate, a combustible product used in fertilizer and can be used “in making cheap explosives.”

The complaint alleges that ammonium nitrate is a volatile and unstable chemical compound, particularly when “exposed to fluctuating temperature cycles.”

The complaint recounts seven instances in which ARC devices exploded and projected shrapnel into the interior space of the vehicles, in two cases resulting in fatalities.

The plaintiffs’ theory is that the product defect is not a manufacturing defect but rather a design defect — the decision to use ammonium nitrate as the propellant.

According to the complaint, most manufacturers use a different chemical compound — guanidine nitrate — as their propellant, but guanidine nitrate is more expensive and “a small number of airbag propellant manufacturers have used ammonium nitrate in the past as a fuel alternative due to cost savings.”

The use of ammonium nitrate in an airbag propellant — even when “phase-stabilized” into something called “PSAN-based propellant” — is “considered overly risky and inappropriate by most in the scientific, research, safety, OEM, and supplier manufacturing Communities,” according to the plaintiffs.

Michael Brooks is the acting executive director of The Center for Auto Safety, a 50-year-old independent non-profit consumer organization founded by The Consumer Union and Ralph Nader. In an interview with Bay City News, Brooks explained that airbag inflators work by generating a “controlled explosion” of the propellant in the inflator to heat the gas and rapidly expand the cushion.

Brooks said that nitrate was widely used in airbag inflators manufactured by major parts supplier Takata Corporation, a Japanese auto parts supplier, although in a different design than those involved in the current suit.

Takata used “wafers” of ammonium nitrate that were not sufficiently protected from the elements to prevent deterioration, and in some cases, when they were triggered, the explosion was not controlled. According to Brooks, “the explosion was essentially blowing apart the airbag housing and sending metal fragments everywhere.”

According to a September 21, 2021 analysis by Consumer Reports, Takata inflators were involved in more than 400 accidents and 19 fatalities and triggered what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration called “the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history,” involving more than 67 million Takata airbags in the United States. Takata subsequently filed for bankruptcy.

Brooks said that the ARC inflators have a different design than the Takata inflators but the “giant similarity they have is that they both use ammonium nitrate as the basis for the way that the inflator works.”

Brooks said that ARC claims “that the ammonium nitrate is sealed in such a way that it’s protected from the environmental factors that cause the degradation.”

Brooks went on to say that his organization has no way to confirm or deny this claim but he “is very concerned.”

He said that he doesn’t know what will happen as cars age and the parts get more exposure. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen over the next 15 years.”

Brooks said that for that reason it is important that the NHTSA “gets in there and get its hands dirty and figures this out.”

He said that the agency has been studying this for many years but hasn’t issued a conclusion.

Brooks thought the new lawsuit “is a big thing in a way, because NHTSA has been sitting on this issue for so long without giving the public any results.”

He continued, “The people who own these vehicles are literally sitting there for years, possibly in fear for their lives, with an an explosive device sitting right in their face.”

The plaintiffs say that they cannot yet identify all the cars into which the allegedly defective airbag inflators are installed but a table in the complaint focuses on GMC Arcadia (2013-17); Audi A-3 (2015-20); Volkswagen Jetta (2018-19); Ford F-150 (2015-17); and Ford Mustang (2015-17).

The complaint asserts claims for fraudulent concealment as well as breach of warranty and violation of various consumer protection laws.

The defendants include ARC and the four auto manufacturers as well as two companies that incorporated the ARC product into larger car parts used in the overall vehicle.

A request for comment from ARC was not immediately returned.

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