Hawaii has filed a lawsuit against three automakers claiming unlawful practices in connection with the marketing and sales of vehicles with dangerous air bags.
The lawsuit was filed against Toyota, Nissan, and Ford by the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs’ Office of Consumer Protection on behalf of the State of Hawaii.
The complaint alleges that the automakers knew or should have known for more than a decade that the Takata air bags installed in their cars could explode, posing grave, sometimes fatal, dangers to the vehicles’ occupants.
The complaint further alleges that the automakers used ammonium nitrate propelled air bags because they were cheaper, despite publicly available information that ammonium nitrate, a chemical principally used to propel rockets and for mining and demolition, was volatile and unpredictable.
“Here in Hawaii, we’re ground zero for danger associated with these air bags,” said Stephen Levins, executive director of the Office of Consumer Protection. “This ammonium nitrate is very unstable when it’s in an environment such as ours. … What happens is it breaks down, the chemical propellant, and it causes it to explode.”
The complaint notes that “the demand for replacement airbags and/or replacement airbag inflators has allegedly been overwhelming, resulting in long delays before unsafe airbags have been or will be replaced.” It adds that “many of the replacement airbags … still used PSAN [phase-stabilized ammonium nitrate] as the propellant for its inflator, making the replacement parts, upon information and belief, as unreliable and dangerous as the original parts.”
The state believes as many as 30,000 Toyota, Nissan, and Ford customers are affected — and that doesn’t include vehicles that already had airbag replacements, which will need to be replaced again in a few years, because it was just a temporary fix.
“Every company that markets and supplies goods to Hawaii consumers has a responsibility to be honest with consumers about the safety and the risks of their products. This is especially true where the goods they are selling are supposed to protect, not injure,” said Levins. “Our complaint alleges that Toyota, Nissan, and Ford misled Hawaii consumers and concealed from them critical safety and risk information about the air bags in their vehicles and, as a result, put Hawaii consumers and their families in grave danger every time they went to drive their cars.”
Hawaii filed the lawsuit under the state’s consumer protection laws for unfair and deceptive conduct. If it wins, drivers could reap the benefits.
The complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, restitution for car buyers, disgorgement of the companies’ profits from these vehicles, and the maximum civil penalties allowed by law of $10,000 per violation.
“We believe the consumers who are out money because of this should recover some restitution,” Levins said.
Last May, Hawaii was the first state to file a separate lawsuit against Takata and Honda for their roles in causing millions of cars to be sold with the dangerous air bags. In October 2016, the state court rejected an effort by Takata to dismiss the state’s case. That litigation is ongoing.
The use of Takata air bags has led to the largest recall in automotive history, involving 42 million vehicles in the U.S., which resulted in a $1 billion criminal plea agreement with Takata.
The Office of Consumer Protection encourages drivers to check here or contact their automotive dealer to determine whether their vehicle has been recalled and get it fixed for free.