Defective Airbags Turn Deadly Spurring Massive Class Action
Takata Corp., which supplies airbags to Toyota, Honda, Ford, BMW, Nissan, and Subaru, was named in a massive class-action lawsuit that alleges that their defective airbags resulted in the deaths of 16 people, with several more injured.
The defective airbags were said to explode on impact shooting metal debris into the faces of passengers and drivers. Several automakers were also named in the lawsuit amid allegations that they knew about the defective airbags and failed to issue a recall. This resulted in several personal injury lawsuits stemming from the defective product.
Takata, in turn, settled the lawsuit for $1 billion early in 2018. The judge presiding over the case said Takata’s behavior was “deeply inappropriate”.
The airbags were discovered to inflate too quickly resulting in a powerful explosive force being directed at the driver’s face. The product defect is linked to regions with high humidity, like Florida.
The biggest question in a case like this is whether or not Takata, and the automakers that they supplied, knew that the product was defective before causing these deaths and injuries. If so, they could liable for gross negligence and willful misconduct under Florida Law.
In May of 2017, four of the automakers listed in the lawsuit settled for a total of $553 million, but the settlement does not cover claims of property damage or personal injury. The settlement only compensates those were affected by the recall. That includes those who owned or leased vehicles impacted by the defective airbags, or were affected by the recall in other ways.
Negligence vs. Strict Liability
Takata has been facing lawsuits over these airbags since 2004. Throughout that period, they settled these cases quickly and quietly drawing as little attention to themselves and the suit as possible. This helped avoid industry scrutiny over the quality of their airbags.
This is significant because it proves that Takata knew about the product defect before many of the injuries and deaths occurred.
One other key point to consider is that plaintiffs’ lawyers in these older cases would not have needed to prove that Takata was negligent or had foreknowledge of the problem to prove their case against the company. This is due to strict liability statutes that stipulate that if a person is injured due to a product defect, the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care or discretion (negligence).
The majority of product liability cases do not bring up the question of negligence because strict liability offers a much lower standard of proof. In the case of Takata, however, proving negligence can result in a much larger settlement for the plaintiffs.
Gross Negligence and Willful Misconduct
In order for a defendant’s actions to rise to the level of gross negligence under Florida Law, a plaintiff must be able to show that the defendant consciously and knowingly disregarded the safety, life, or rights of others.
In this case, the plaintiffs’ attorneys will need to show that Takata had foreknowledge of the defective airbags and chose not to act on that knowledge to avoid tarnishing their reputation. They will use the many cases that Takata settled in 2004 to show that Takata did indeed have foreknowledge of the defect and chose not to act.
If Takata can be shown to have had foreknowledge of the defect, and still chose not to act, a jury could award the plaintiffs punitive damages. This is an instance in which making the more difficult case of negligence can result in a higher settlement for the plaintiffs.
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