Although much of the focus in recent years involving airbag problems has stemmed from Takata inflators, a growing number of airbag lawsuits are now being filed over a defective control unit manufactured by ZF-TRW, which may cause millions of airbags to fail to deploy in a crash.
According to a recent petition (PDF) filed with the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML), there are currently at least 15 product liability lawsuits filed in various different U.S. District Courts involving problems with airbag components manufactured by ZF-TRW Automotive Holdings Corporation, which have been used in vehicles sold by Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Chrysler and Toyota.
Each of the complaints raise similar allegations, indicating that defective airbag control units (ACUs) manufactured by ZF-TRW caused airbags to fail, resulting in serious injuries or death. In addition, a number of class actions lawsuits are being pursued, alleging that the recalled airbags resulted in a diminished value for vehicle owners.
Given common questions of fact and law presented in the complaints, the petition seeks to centralize all current and future ZF-TRW airbag lawsuits before one U.S. District Judge for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings as part of a federal MDL, or multidistrict litigation.
The original request was filed in early June, and a number of responses in support of consolidation have since been filed by different parties involved in the litigation, arguing that centralization is necessary to reduce duplicative discovery into common issues in the cases, prevent conflicting pretrial rulings by different judges and serve the convenience of common witnesses, parties and the judicial system as the size of the litigation continues to grow.
A preliminary investigation into the airbag problems just began last year, after field data suggested that the control units may be prone to experience an electrical overstress due to wiring interference produced by a crash, causing the airbag to fail on impact.
The NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) escalated the investigation to an Engineering Analysis, which will expand the scope of the investigation to include the parts distributor, manufacturers, and all vehicles that were equipped with similar electronic air bag control units to determine if there is a safety defect warranting a recall.
“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates some 12.5 million vehicles may contain a defective Airbag Control Unit (ACU) designed and manufactured by ZF TRW Automotive Holdings Corporation (ZF TRW) and supplied to numerous vehicle manufacturers, including Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Honda and Fiat Chrysler US,” according to one response in support filed by plaintiffs Michael Hernandez and Tammy Tyler late last month. “The ACU dictates if and when airbags and seatbelt pretensioners are engaged. Airbag and seatbelt failures often lead to catastrophic injury or death, so a defective Airbag Control Unit poses a serious danger to all drivers and passengers in affected vehicles every time they take the car on the road.”
All of the plaintiffs and at least three defendants who have filed responses with the U.S. JPML have agreed that it is appropriate to centralize the airbag lawsuits over problems with the ZF-TRW control units, with several different venues proposed.
The U.S. JPML is scheduled to consider oral arguments on the motion next week, at a hearing set for July 25, at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Oregon.