By Mike Spector
Owners of vehicles with rupture-prone Takata Corp. air bags sued four additional auto makers, accusing them of concealing defects in the safety devices now tied to numerous deaths and injuries.
The legal complaints, filed on Wednesday in a Miami federal court, targeted Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and General Motors Co. They follow lawsuits against other large auto makers that have resulted in settlements collectively totaling more than $1 billion, and required car companies take significant steps to galvanize consumers to bring vehicles to dealerships for repairs.
The lawsuits filed Wednesday allege plaintiffs suffered financial losses because the value of their vehicles declined as a result of the safety defect, now linked to 22 deaths, more than 180 injuries and the largest automotive recall in U.S. history. They alleged the auto makers misrepresented their vehicles as safe despite knowledge of problems with their air bags, which risk exploding and spraying metal shards.
"These auto manufacturers were well aware of the public safety risks posed by Takata's air bags long ago, and still waited years to disclose them to the public and take action," said Peter Prieto, a plaintiffs' lawyer representing consumers in widespread litigation consolidated in the Florida court. He said the complaints filed on Wednesday represented "an important step forward in holding them accountable, and ensuring all consumers exposed to these dangerous air bags receive the recourse they deserve."
A Daimler spokesman called the allegations in the complaint "unfounded" and declined to comment further. A Fiat Chrysler spokesman said the company hadn't been served with the lawsuit against it and declined to comment. A GM spokesman said the auto maker had no reports of ruptures in vehicles with the relevant air bags. A Volkswagen spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The legal actions come on the heels of other widespread litigation, congressional hearings and investigations stemming from a safety crisis that prompted the unprecedented recall of vehicles with up to nearly 70 million air bags in the U.S. alone. The air bags used propellants with ammonium nitrate that can destabilize after prolonged exposure to heat and humidity, leading to explosions, investigations have found.
Takata filed for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. and Japan last year amid mounting liabilities from the recalls with plans to sell operations to a rival. The Japanese automotive supplier also pleaded guilty last year to criminal wire fraud for sending misleading testing reports on the air bags to auto makers. Next week, a Senate panel will hold a hearing on the pace of the recalls, with the U.S.'s top auto-safety regulator and automotive executives expected to testify.
Honda Motor Co., historically Takata's largest customer, last year reached a $605 million settlement covering 16.5 million vehicles with rupture-prone air bags. The agreement contemplated Honda ultimately paying only $484 million in consideration of its recall efforts.
Toyota Motor Corp., BMW AG, Mazda Motor Corp., Subaru Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. also reached similar settlements. Similar claims remain pending against Ford Motor Co.
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