FILE - This July 14, 2015, file photo shows the ARC Automotive manufacturing plant in Knoxville, Tenn. A class action lawsuit has been filed against seven automakers and a Tennessee air bag parts manufacturer accusing them of knowingly selling vehicles with dangerous exploding air bag inflators. The lawsuit filed Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in San Francisco, names inflator manufacturer ARC Automotive Inc. of Knoxville as a defendant. ARC sold inflators to larger air bag manufacturers, who in turn sold to General Motors, BMW, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis). (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File)

Lawsuit accuses 3 automakers and parts maker in air bag case

Lawsuit accuses 3 automakers and parts maker in air bag case

DETROIT (AP) — A class action lawsuit is accusing three automakers and a parts manufacturer of knowingly selling vehicles containing air bag inflators that are at risk of exploding. Two deaths and at least four injuries have been linked to such explosions.

The federal lawsuit, filed Tuesday in San Francisco, names ARC Automotive Inc. of Knoxville, Tennessee, which made the inflators and sold them to air bag manufacturers. The air bag makers, in turn, sold them to General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen, which are named in the lawsuit, too.

The five plaintiffs are the owners of vehicles with ARC inflators who contend the defective air bag parts were not disclosed when they made their purchases.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been investigating ARC inflators for nearly seven years without a resolution, estimates that there are 51 million on U.S. roads. That’s somewhere between 10% and 20% of all passenger vehicles.

Yet most drivers have no conclusive way to determine whether their vehicle contains an ARC inflator. Even if they were to tear apart the steering wheel assembly, the internal parts might bear the markings only of the automaker or the air bag manufacturer, not the inflator maker.

“You could have a ticking time bomb in your lap and you’ve got no way of knowing,” said Frank Melton, a Florida lawyer who is among those filing the new lawsuit.

One of the deaths was a mother of 10 who was killed in what appeared to be an otherwise minor crash in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula last summer. Police reports show that a metal inflator fragment hit her neck in a crash involving a 2015 Chevrolet Traverse SUV.

In a statement Tuesday, GM said it hadn’t had a chance to review the lawsuit. It said it is dedicated to the safety of its products and customers and is cooperating with NHTSA in its investigation.

Messages were left seeking comment from ARC and Ford. Volkswagen declined comment.

The plaintiffs allege that ARC’s inflators use ammonium nitrate as a secondary propellant to inflate the air bags. The propellant is pressed into tablets that can expand and develop microscopic holes if exposed to moisture. Degraded tablets have a larger surface area, causing them to burn too fast and ignite too big of an explosion, according to the lawsuit.

The explosion can blow apart a metal canister housing the chemical, sending metal shards into the cabin. Ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizer and as a cheap explosive, is so dangerous that it can burn too fast even without moisture present, the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs allege that ARC inflators have blown apart seven times on U.S. roads and two other times in testing by ARC. There have so far been five limited recalls of the inflators that totaled about 5,000 vehicles, including three recalls by GM.

Auto safety advocates say the case seems to mirror the Takata air bag saga that began in the early 2000s, which also involved exploding air bag inflators and resulted in 28 deaths worldwide, hundreds of injuries and the largest automotive recall in U.S. history. So far NHTSA has gathered information but hasn’t forced any wider recalls from its investigation that began in July of 2015.

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