Citing his Fifth Amendment right again self-incrimination, an engineer reportedly involved in testing Takata airbags declined to testify in a suit brought by a woman left a quadriplegic following her 2014 accident in an 2001 Honda Civic. Attorneys for the plaintiff say that the airbag manufacturer may have withheld or doctored tests results regarding exploding airbag inflators.
Bloomberg News said today in a story about the trial that Al Bernat refused to testify in a deposition regarding the suit. Bernat, a safety specialist at Takata, has been sought as a key witness on on multiple tests. Ted Leopold, an attorney for the victim, made the disclosure of Bernat’s action at a hearing Friday in Jacksonville, Fla. Bernat’s attorney, Guy Petrillo, did not respond to requests for comments.
In a November 2014 story in the New York Times, Bernat was said to have supervised secret inflator tests in 2004. Those tests, the newspaper story alleged, showed unexpected ruptures had occurred. According to the report, tests results were not disclosed. Meantime, Takata challenged the story, stating that Bernat’s integrity had been “unfairly questioned on the basis of two anonymous sources.”
Meantime, Jared Levy, a spokesman for Takata’s US unit said its parent, TK Holdings, believes the suit is “without merit” and that it intends to “defend itself vigorously.” Levy made the comment in an email. He also declined to comment on Bernat.
Leopold represents Patricia Mincey, the victim in the accident. The attorney presented evidence at a hearing Friday that, he said, showed the airbag manufacturer obtained product evaluation information on the airbag inflator and left results that were not within Honda’s specification range out of a report.
“This is a document that was provided to Honda for [a] PSDI-4 inflator,” Leopold told the judge, while pointing to a document that referred to the inflator. The evaluation was competed in the US and “sent to Japan, then given to Honda. On the Japanese side and the US side, they alter[ed] the test data,” the attorney emphasized, continuing that “the level of dishonesty and fraud is perhaps the worst we have ever seen in automobile history.”
David Bernick, an attorney for Takata, said in court that falsified data claims didn’t matter in the case. “It is not about whether Takata was candid with Honda … It is about what did Takata know about Mrs. Mincey’s car.” He stated that Takata didn’t believe:
The airbag inflator was defective
The airbag inflator was the cause of her injuries
Alleging that Takata committed fraud, beginning with Honda Motor Co., at the time the airbag manufacturer’s largest customer, Leopold said Takata withheld test data. He asked Judge James Daniel, a Florida circuit court justice, to allow Mrs. Mincey to seek punitive damages. Judge Daniel denied the request, although he did allow Mrs. Mincey’s attorney to resubmit their request later.
Mrs. Mincey’s suit is one of hundreds that have been filed in what has become the largest safety-related automotive recall in history. To date, more than 25 million vehicles have been recalled as of Thursday. The recalls have been for defective airbag inflators that burst when the devices have deployed. The remains of the shattered housings then scythe through the interior of impacted vehicles, sometimes, with fatal results. So far, 10 deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the failing inflators. The majority of the vehicles have been Hondas, however, the latest fatality was in a Ford Ranger midsized pickup, the first non-Honda vehicles. Though there is speculation about the cause of the failures – some say it is related to the force of the blast that propelled the airbag on deployment – no official cause has been released.
Mrs. Mincey, who has been been ventilator dependent since the June 15, 2014 crash, had not only sued Takata but also Honda. The automaker and plaintiff have reached a settlement.