Takata, Automakers, Support MDL for Airbag Recall Lawsuits, Dispute Proper Venue

In response to a motion that seeks to consolidate the growing number of airbag recall lawsuits brought throughout the federal court system over exploding Takata airbags, the Japanese parts supplier and various automakers named in the complaints indicate that they agree the litigation should be centralized before one judge, but oppose the venue proposed by the plaintiffs.

About 8 million vehicles sold by at least 10 different manufacturers have been recalled this year due to a risk of problems with Takata airbags, which may over-inflate, rupture and explode, causing potentially deadly debris to be fired into the passenger compartment of vehicles.

As a result of the problems, at least 50 proposed airbag class action lawsuits have been filed in 18 different U.S. District Courts nationwide, seeking economic losses on behalf of owners of vehicles with the defective airbags. In addition, many more product liability and wrongful death lawsuits are expected to be filed in the coming months on behalf of individuals who suffered injuries from exploding airbags in recent years.

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Takata Airbag Lawsuits

Millions of Vehicles Were Recalled in 2014 Due to Exploding Airbags That Caused Injuries and Deaths.

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A group of plaintiffs filed a motion with the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) on November 3, seeking to centralize all Takata airbag lawsuits before U.S. District Judge James King in the Southern District of Florida for coordinated discovery and other pretrial proceedings.

Known as an MDL, or multidistrict litigation, plaintiffs argue that consolidation is necessary to reduce duplicative discovery, avoid conflicting rulings from different judges and to serve the convenience of the parties.

On November 26, a response (PDF) was filed by Takata Corp. and a joint response (PDF) was filed on behalf of several automakers, including Honda, BMW, Ford, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota. The defendants all supported centralized management of the cases, but indicate that the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh, is a more appropriate venue for the cases.

“Given the broad geographic dispersion of the defendants, witnesses, and relevant documents, Pittsburgh would be far more convenient than the destinations proposed by the competing groups of plaintiffs,” the automakers’ response notes. “In addition, the docket conditions in the Western District of Pennsylvania are very favorable — clearly superior to those in plaintiffs’ main candidates, the Southern District of Florida and the Central District of California.”

Chrysler Group LLC filed a separate response (PDF) with the U.S. JPML, indicating that it should not even be involved in the airbag litigation, as the company maintains that it did not manufacture the affected airbags and argues bankruptcy protection should shield the “new” Chrysler from liability for vehicles sold by the “old” Chrysler.

“Chrysler Group did not even exist when these vehciels were manufactured (in 2003 through 2008), making it clear that the plaintiffs are seeking to hold Chrysler Group liable for alleged wrongdoing of the bankrupt vehicle manufacturer from which it purchased certain assets during the course of a bankruptcy proceeding,” said the automaker in the response.

In the event the U.S. JPML does decide to consolidate the litigation and include claims against Chrysler Group, the automaker indicates that the cases should be centralized in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where the bankruptcy proceedings were handled in 2009.

The U.S. JPML is expected to hear oral arguments on the motion at an upcoming hearing session scheduled for January 29, 2015, in Miami, Florida.

Takata May Face Lawsuit From Government Regulators

The debate over where the airbag recall lawsuits should be centralized comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) continues to investigate the problems, accusing both Takata and certain auto makers of hiding information about the defects.

Honda recently admitted that it has failed to adequately report a number of injuries and deaths associated with the airbags and other problems with its vehicles. The company could face fines of up to $35 million.

Last Wednesday, the NHTSA sent a letter to Takata (PDF) warning that it has until tomorrow to file a report declaring its airbags defective and to issue a much wider-ranging recall, significantly expanding the number of vehicles impacted.

Original recalls have only impacted vehicles sold in humid-regions, where the over-inflation and risk of ruptures has been deemed more likely to occur. However, the NHTSA has indicated that all U.S. vehicles with defective Takata airbags should be recalled. The agency said if the company fails to comply, it could fine Takata up to $7,000 for each vehicle equipped with its airbags currently on the road. The NHTSA noted that this could involve millions of vehicles.

“Takata has supplied millions of frontal driver’s side air bag inflators to at least five motor vehicle manufacturers over the last fifteen years,” the letter states. “A growing number of these inflators have ruptured, projecting metal fragments into vehicle occupants; thereby creating an unreasonable risk of death and injury.”

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