The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) flexed its proverbial muscles Friday, levying a fine of $14,000 per day for every day that the Takata Corporation fails to fully cooperate with the agency’s investigation into exploding airbag inflators. These exploding airbag inflators are at the center of a worldwide recall campaign. At least six deaths have been linked to (if not directly caused by) metal shrapnel from the faulty airbag inflators. The NHTSA also warned Takata, a Japanese auto parts company with production facilities on four continents, that if the situation is not resolved the Department of Justice could become involved.
The NHTSA issued “special orders” sometime last year demanding that the Takata Corporation produce certain documents and answer questions under oath regarding their airbag manufacturing and inspection procedures. These special orders are considered to be the equivalent of an official subpoena. Although the Takata Corporation contends that over 2.4-million pages of documents have been surrendered in response to the special orders, the NHTSA lawyer, Kevin Vincent, declares foul. He says that missing documentation, explaining the content of the overwhelming mountain of paper work, violates the terms of the subpoena.
“That issue, coupled with Takata’s conduct earlier this week on a separate matter related to the agency’s ongoing investigation, we have concluded that Takata is neither being forthcoming with the information that it is legally obligated to supply, nor is it being cooperative in aiding NHTSA’s ongoing investigation of a potentially serious safety defect,” Vincent said in the letter. He went on to warn that Takata employees (in the U.S. and Japan) could be deposed if the situation is not remedied in “short order.”
The Takata Corporation responded by saying that they were surprised and disappointed by the NHTSA announcement. They disagree with charges that they have withheld information and claim that they have been fully cooperative. Takata representatives declare that they have been in regular contact with NHTSA officials in an attempt to determine the root cause of the airbag failures, as well as document production. “We continue to keep NHTSA closely informed on the extensive testing efforts we have undertaken. That work has, so far, supported our initial view that age and sustained exposure to heat and humidity is a common factor in the small number of inflators that have malfunctioned,” Takata’s statement said. “We are also in the process of implementing an effort to accelerate replacement recalls in those geographic areas identified as being most at risk.
The Takata Corporation will face the $14,000 fine every day until it addresses its shortcomings in NHTSA’s investigation. “Safety is a shared responsibility and Takata’s failure to fully cooperate with our investigation is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “For each day that Takata fails to fully cooperate with our demands, we will hit them with another fine.” Foxx also called on Congress to pass the administration’s transportation bill, called the Grow America Act, which would give regulators new tools and increase the maximum civil penalty that can be imposed by NHTSA to $300 million from the current $35 million cap. The tools are needed to “change the culture of safety for bad actors like Takata.”