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Takata air bag problem grows with more Nissans recalled, new lawsuit

Takata air bag problem grows with more Nissans recalled, new lawsuit
Nissan has recalled another batch of cars because of defects in Takata air bags. (CJ Gunther / EPA)

The Takata exploding air bags controversy continues to grow with Nissan reporting to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it will recall 52,000 more vehicles to fix the problem.

Meanwhile, a group of senators is asking the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into reports that the air bag supplier conducted secret tests on ruptures a decade ago but didn't take action or report the results to safety regulators.

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The problem is thought to affect close to 8 million vehicles in the U.S.

Already the NHTSA has opened an investigation into American Honda Motor Co., asking whether the automaker failed to report known problems with air bags made by Takata Corp. in a timely manner.

Defective Takata air bags, many of them installed in Honda vehicles, have been the subject of NHTSA safety alerts after reports of incidents in which the automobile restraint systems exploded and hurled metal shrapnel into the heads and bodies of drivers and passengers.

At least two deaths and many injuries have been associated with the Takata air bags, which were installed in vehicles made by Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford and BMW in various model years ranging from 2000 to 2008. About 5 miillion of the cars are Hondas.

In this latest round of recalls, Nissan said it will call back close to 52,000 autos, including the 2003-04 Nissan Pathfinder, 2004-06 Nissan Sentra, 2003-05 Infiniti FX35 and FX45, 2003-04 Infiniti I35, and 2006 Infiniti M35 and M45 vehicles.

These vehicles were all originally sold or currently registered in geographic locations associated with high absolute humidity, specifically, vehicles sold or currently registered in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Florida and adjacent counties in southern Georgia, as well as the coastal areas of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Safety regulators believe the problem might be associated with hot, humid climates.

But other safety experts, such as Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, said it's not clear how much of a factor weather has been on the problem and believes there should be a wider recall.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), the lawmakers seeking the criminal probe, also believe all vehicles with the potentially defective air bags should be recalled.

Last week the Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro law firm filed a second class-action lawsuit against Takata and Honda.

The complaint, filed in Los Angeles Federal Court, claims that Takata withheld knowledge of the air bag defects from federal regulators and ordered its technicians to destroy data related to housing defects, including video and computer backups.

"Despite claiming this incident was 'an anomaly,' Takata subjected its air bag systems to secret testing that revealed the opposite. They learned of the air bag defect that could prove fatal to drivers," said Steve Berman, managing partner at Hagens Berman. "Although they knew this information, Takata then chose to embark in a cover-up campaign, withholding their discovery from federal regulators."

The complaint is similar to one filed last month. That lawsuit contends that Takata knew of the deadly air bag defect at least 13 years ago, first seeing the problem in an Isuzu vehicle but failing to take action.

Honda learned of the problem in 2004 when the air bag in an Accord exploded in Alabama, shooting out metal shrapnel and severely injuring the car's driver, the suit said. Honda and Takata decided that the malfunction did not warrant an investigation, recall and involvement of federal safety regulators, according to the lawsuit.

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Previously, the law firm successfully negotiated similar claims, including a $1.6-billion class-action settlement with Toyota that is among the largest paid by an automaker. The Toyota case involved incidents of unintended acceleration. The Seattle firm also was recently named co-lead counsel in a class-action lawsuit against General Motors Co. over faulty ignition switches and loss of vehicle value.

Takata has declined to comment on the problem and the lawsuits. Honda said it is cooperating with regulators but also has previously declined comment on air bag lawsuits.

Meanwhile, NHTSA reported Monday that Audi will recall about 102,000 vehicles to fix a different air bag problem.

The cars include the 2013-15 Audi A4 and S4 vehicles and 2013-15 Audi Allroad vehicles. Due to an improper algorithm in the air bag control module the front air bags might not deploy in a second impact of a crash that first triggered the side air bags.

Follow me on Twitter (@LATimesJerry), Facebook and Google+.

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