Jerry Cox on the Chrysler Airbag Deaths

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told owners of roughly 276,000 Chryslers not to drive the cars because of defective airbags. 

The warning comes after two people died in separate crashes involving 2010 Dodge Chargers where the Takata driver’s side airbags exploded. 

“Additionally, NHTSA is aware of several other suspected inflator ruptures in vehicles from other automakers potentially due to exploding Takata airbags.”

“NHTSA is urging all vehicle owners to immediately check to see if their vehicle has an open Takata airbag recall. If it does, owners need to contact their dealership to schedule a free repair as soon as possible and follow any warnings from the vehicle manufacturer. Dealerships will work with vehicle owners to arrange ways to get the vehicles in for the repair.”  

Corporate Crime Reporter contacted NHTSA to find out details about the deaths – who was killed, what kind of car accident, where did they happen?

Derrell Lyles at NHTSA responded with an email – “For guidance, please contact Fiat Chrysler.”

Wait, isn’t NHTSA supposed to be the safety regulator?

We reached out to Chrysler.

“We are aware of two confirmed ruptures in which fatalities were involved. A third crash is under investigation,” the company said in a statement. “All happened within the last seven months and exclusively involved model-year 2010 vehicles. Prior to these incidents, we reached out to these particular owners a combined total of 153 times. In each case, the recall remained unremedied. One of the three contacted our call center in 2018 and declined an opportunity to obtain the free recall repair.” 

“In a Takata-related outreach unrelated to these three cases, the vehicle owner advised that he would pursue a cease-and-desist order if Stellantis continued to urge him to obtain the recall remedy.”

But Chrysler did not provide more specific details of the deaths – what kind of accidents, where they occurred, types of injuries.

Back to NHTSA. No answer.

Jerry Cox is the author of  Killer Airbags: How to Protect Yourself from the Worst Disaster in Automotive History. 

“What the NHTSA spokesperson is telling you is that Chrysler is making these decisions. NHTSA is not making the decisions, Chrysler is,” Cox told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview earlier this month.

“Right now, the car manufacturers are following the Fight Club formula,” Cox said.

“It’s from the movie The Fight Club. There is a guy who works for a major auto company and he works on deciding whether to recall automobiles. And they come up with a formula that in a nutshell says they will just settle with victims unless it will cost them more than a recall.”

“We don’t do anything unless it’s going to save us money.” 

“And NHTSA is leaderless. Biden finally got someone confirmed, went through a great deal of effort, went several months to get somebody confirmed and the guy stayed in the job for two months.”

Do you know why he left?

“No, but if I were in that job, with the deaths on the highways going up the way it has been under this administration, I wouldn’t want to be in that position.”

There is a reason why Chrysler and NHTSA don’t want the public to know about the specifics of these airbag deaths and that’s why they haven’t released the information.

Tell us what happens in a Takata airbag death?

“The ammonium nitrate that Takata put in the inflator is supposed to burn at a certain rate,” Cox said. “If it burns at the correct rate, gas goes into the airbag, it inflates the airbag, and it protects the driver from hitting the steering wheel, for example.” 

“If on the other hand, the ammonium nitrate has too much surface area, it doesn’t burn, it just flat out explodes and the metal casing that houses it turns into shrapnel. Big chunks of metal fly out.” 

“In one of the Ford deaths, a chunk of metal went through the driver’s throat and severed his spinal cord. He was pretty much decapitated by that. But there are other circumstances where the shrapnel will take off an ear or a nose. There was one case in California where a chunk of metal hit a passenger in the forehead. It was like blunt force trauma – like hitting someone in the head with a baseball bat.” 

“That’s why it’s pretty ugly and pretty bloody. In most of the deaths, the people were practically decapitated.”

Is there any action in Congress to bring more attention to this issue?

“I’ve never seen any action in Congress to bring any attention to this issue, at least not since NHTSA struck its deal with Takata and the car companies back in 2015.”

“People have been killed by these Takata airbags for eighteen years already. And it has been seven years since anybody in Congress paid the slightest bit of attention.”

It’s not a huge death toll – a couple of deaths a year. Is that why Congress isn’t paying attention?

“I wish I knew. It’s one thing if a company puts something in your car, it goes wrong and it kills you. But if they put something in your car to save you, like an airbag, and it kills you, that should get attention, but it hasn’t. And I don’t understand how the largest recall of any consumer product in history gets submarined the way this recall was submarined.”

When there is an airbag death, there is usually a report in the local paper about it. 

“It means the police have to say something about it. And the local police end up getting pushed aside by NHTSA and by the car companies who come in to say – don’t go around saying this is an airbag death because we don’t know that yet, even when somebody has a chunk of airbag inflator stuck in their spine.” 

“Also, in many of these cases, people are so badly injured, the police mistake the cause as murders. That happened early on because nobody heard of a Takata airbag killing somebody. The police would start investigating it as a murder.” 

“There was one case of a Vietnamese woman on her way home from her nail salon. And she had a bunch of money in the car with her. She wasn’t robbed. But she was killed. And it turned out she was killed by the Takata airbag inflator.”

“If you leave it up to the car companies, they are sure as hell not going to tell you this is happening.”

Takata did plead guilty to a crime in 2017 and paid $1 billion.

“Yes, but most of that money went to the car companies – $25 million went to the government, $850 million went to the car companies and $125 million to a fund for people who were killed or maimed.”

“The lion’s share of that billion was a refund to the car companies to help them with the recall costs. But the car companies are using the Flight Club recall formula and only doing recalls when they absolutely have to. You have about eight million cars that were recalled and not fixed. But there are still 30 million cars that have Takata airbags in them that have never been recalled, much less replaced.”

What is the Fight Club formula?

“In the movie The Fight Club, the Ed Norton character has a conversation with a woman on an airplane. There is some turbulence. And he tells her – this is nothing compared to what I deal with. I work for a major car company. I am called in to figure out whether they are going to do a safety recall when something horrible happens. And he says – they don’t do a safety recall unless the numbers add up right. The law says if there is a safety problem in the car they are obligated to at least recall it. But they don’t even do the recall unless the numbers add up.”

“In the Chrysler case, reporters are not asking the questions you asked – who are these people? How did they die? Where were they killed? We know that these inflators deteriorate at different rates depending on what region of the country they happen to be located in. But they didn’t provide any information.” 

Obviously, they don’t want the information out because of the gruesome nature of the deaths.

“I don’t think that’s why they don’t want the information out,” Cox said. “If people know what could happen to them, they are probably going to be a bit more inclined to get their cars fixed and that will cost the car companies money.”

“It’s going to be more expensive to replace the airbags in the 300,000 Chrysler than in the Fords because Chrysler had this special design so you couldn’t just pop out the inflator and pop in a new inflator.” 

“You are talking about a 12 year old Chrysler. How much is that worth now? If you are lucky, maybe the car is worth $2,000.”

Why are there no tort lawsuits for Takata airbag deaths?

“The bankruptcy court pretty much ruled those out.” 

There is a Takata Airbag Tort Compensation Trust Fund.

“Yes and even if you apply and are eligible, the best you can get is something like 14 cents on the dollar. The first step in the process that the special master, Eric Green, goes through is to figure out what your claim would have been worth. Let’s say it was a death and the family’s claim was worth $1.4 million. You would figure 14 percent of that – $196,000. And that’s out of a claim that is worth $1.4 million.”

Takata pled guilty to a major crime. There should be full compensation. Why did they set it up this way?

“Out of the $1 billion, $850 million went to the car companies.”

What if the fund runs out of money? Are the people who come after that out of luck?

“The bankruptcy trustee, Eric Green, spent a ton of money to try and figure out a way so that the fund doesn’t run out. He has been approving actual payments in almost every case many years after the death or injury happened. He has approved payouts based on his calculations on what it is going to take to keep money in the fund for future claimants. And the amount for future claimants was severely reduced. It was a real battle to get any money from the bankruptcy proceeding put into that fund.”

“It’s very complicated. But the bottom line is that if you are injured or killed, you are pretty much out of luck. There are some things you can do, but you are pretty much out of luck. He files reports saying where the money went.”

(Eric Green did not return calls seeking comment.) 

What should Congress do to rectify this problem?

“Congress needs to put pressure on the President to put somebody in charge of NHTSA who is going to do something. That’s number one. There should be oversight hearings as to why NHTSA has been headless for something like ten out of the last twelve years. Why is it headless?”

“Every one of those 300,000 cars were registered at a state DMV. And they were registered after the DMV got instant access to the database. It was a matter of seconds for a DMV to find out that somebody is handing you a registration for a car that has one of these killer airbags in them. What does the DMV do? They register the car despite the recall notice and hand you your registration card.” 

“Legislation could be passed prohibiting DMVs from registering cars with killer airbags in them. Or legislation could be passed prohibiting the sale of cars with killer airbags in them. Something needs to be done. Making it a do it yourself project for the owners isn’t working.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Jerry Cox, 34 Corporate Crime Reporter 44(12), November 14, 2022, print edition only.]

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