Honda engineer debunks own claim about cause of Takata airbag failures

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UPDATED: 6/23/17 5:04 pm ET – adds detail, background

DETROIT — Honda Motor Co. on Friday released a 2013 email in which one of its engineers suggested that he knew some hidden truth about “the root cause” of Takata Corp. airbag failures, but the engineer later said he was mistaken.

The engineer’s email was disclosed in a statement from Honda as part of its defense in a class action suit in Florida, where plaintiffs are seeking compensation for the lost value of vehicles due to defects in Takata airbag inflators.

The inflators can explode with excessive force, launching metal shrapnel at passengers in cars and trucks.

The inflators prompted the automotive industry’s largest-ever safety recall and have been linked to at least 16 deaths worldwide. Nine of the 11 U.S. deaths have been reported in 2001-03 model Honda and Acura vehicles

The engineer’s July 18, 2013 email, originally written in Japanese and translated by Honda, is part of an exchange with a colleague at the automaker.

“I am a witness in the dark who knows the truth about Takata’s inflator recall,” the engineer, whose name is blacked out in Honda’s statement, wrote in his email.

“If I say something to NHTSA, it will cause a complete reversal in the auto industry which adopted Takata inflators,” added the engineer, who told his colleague he had been taken off airbag-related work by Honda because of his supposed inside knowledge.

NHTSA is an acronym for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In a sworn affidavit filed with a federal court and dated June 1, 2017, the engineer acknowledged he had been mistaken, however.

When he wrote email to his colleague, he was referring to an Oct. 16, 1999, event in which a prototype Takata airbag inflator ruptured, the engineer stated.

Based on later findings by NHTSA, “I now understand that I was incorrect and the root cause of the field events is not related to the root cause of the October 1999 rupture,” he said.

Honda did not name the engineer. But it said he was still employed by the company and that while it had no objection to the engineer testifying in the Florida case he had declined to do so.

Honda also reiterated its position that it did not conceal knowledge of Takata defects, but instead was itself a victim of deception by Takata officials.

Peter Prieto, a lawyer for consumer plaintiffs in the Takata airbag litigation, said in a statement that Honda had refused to present the engineer for a deposition.

The engineer’s email was “just one of the many we have uncovered establishing that Honda was well aware of the public safety risks posed by Takata’s airbags,” Prieto said.

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