NHTSA Takes Steps to Force a Recall of 52 Million ARC Automotive Airbags

Updated October 17th, 2023

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently stepped up its efforts to force a recall of more than 52 million airbags manufactured by ARC Automotive, Inc. and Delphi Systems, LLC. As The Rothenberg Law Firm previously reported in June, ARC refused a request from regulators to voluntarily recall dangerous airbag inflators that can project metal fragments into vehicle occupants when the airbag deploys in a car crash.

With this recent announcement, NHTSA is now poised to initiate a mandatory recall.

One of the airbag deaths includes a Michigan mother whose Chevrolet Traverse was involved in a minor fender-bender in 2021. The airbag inflated and propelled metal shrapnel into her neck.

A pending class action lawsuit alleges that ARC and automakers knowingly sold vehicles with exploding airbags that caused multiple deaths and serious injuries.

After 8-Year Investigation, NHTSA Says ARC Airbags “Create Unreasonable Risk of Death”

Following an eight-year investigation, NHTSA concluded that ARC front driver and passenger airbag deflators have a safety defect that can cause them to explode.

According to the letter NHTSA sent to ARC, “Air bag inflators that project metal fragments into vehicle occupants, rather than properly inflating the attached air bag, create an unreasonable risk of death and injury.”

ARC, which is owned by the Chinese real estate investment firm, Yinyi Group, has consistently denied liability for defects with its airbags and has instead attempted to shift responsibility for injuries and deaths onto auto manufacturers that have installed ARC airbags into their vehicles. Those manufacturers include Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Ford, Toyota, Stellantis, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Hyundai, and Kia.

The potentially defective airbags were installed in vehicles that were manufactured between 2001 and 2017.

Delphi had previously manufactured airbags under a license from ARC but stopped in 2004. NHTSA believes that Delphi manufactured approximately 11 million airbags that may be flawed and subject to an eventual recall. ARC-manufactured airbags account for the remaining 41 million airbags.

NHTSA is conducting a public hearing on this matter on October 5. ARC and vehicle manufacturers will have an opportunity to present their opinions on the matter before the Agency makes its final determination about issuing a mandatory recall.

ARC Refuses to Accept Responsibility, Potentially Putting Motorists at Risk

ARC Automotive Inc., contends that it is up to the manufacturers to initiate recalls, and that NHTSA is overstepping its legal authority to demand a recall from ARC.

However, auto safety advocates say the case mirrors the Takata airbag ordeal of the early 2000s that ultimately killed 28 people and caused hundreds more injuries before the recall went out.

ARC Airbag Class Action Lawsuit

The class action lawsuit references NHTSA’s investigation, which found that welding debris created during the manufacturing process can block an exit orifice for gas release, causing pressure to build up and a subsequent explosion.

Furthermore, the class action lawsuit contends that ARC inflators use ammonium nitrate tablets as a secondary propellant to inflate the airbags, which can degrade with moisture exposure, causing them to burn too quickly and explode.

The lawsuit alleges that ARC inflators have blown apart at least seven times on U.S. roads and during two previous safety tests, meaning that the airbag and auto manufacturers are well aware of the deadly risks to consumers.

NHTSA Recommends ARC Airbag Recall at October Hearing

In October 2023, NHTSA announced an official recall recommendation for 50 million+ ARC airbag inflators due to malfunctions that have been linked to potentially deadly explosions. The recalled inflators were used in vehicles manufactured from 2000 to 2018 by a variety of car makers, including Ford, General Motors, Tesla, Hyundai, Kia, Toyota, BMW, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz.

The announcement was made at a recent hearing in which regulators confirmed that the airbag inflator malfunctions could lead to “severe and potentially deadly” outcomes. This determination upheld NHTSA’s findings from September that the inflators posed an unreasonable safety risk.

“The evidence shows without a recall more people will be injured or killed,” an agency official informed those present at the hearing.

Another agency representative testified that “the timing is unpredictable and any one of the 52 million inflators is at risk.”

Injuries Associated with the Product

The son of a mother of 10 who died in 2021 due to a rupture of the airbag inflator urged a recall.

“More moms don’t need to die, more kids don’t have to be raised by their siblings,” he testified. “The magnitude of suffering caused by that inflator not being recalled is exponential.”

An executive from ARC testified at the hearing and claimed that an internal company investigation, including extensive tests of the inflators, had concluded that dangerous issues with the devices were “isolated” and “not indicative of a systemic defect.” The executive argued that a recall was therefore not necessary.

However, that is not the case according to NHTSA. In fact,  loose debris can get into the inflators during the manufacturing process and rupture the devices. The agency estimates that a serious injury results approximately once every 370,000 times the airbags are deployed, though the malfunction rate could prove to be even higher as more data comes in. A NHTSA statistician revealed at the hearing that the recall recommendation stems in part from the fact that there is no way to determine beforehand which airbag inflators are likely to explode.

“The only way to know if a particular inflator in this population will rupture is for it to undergo a deployment,” she testified.

The hearing was scheduled after ARC’s refusal to launch a voluntary recall of the inflators. NHTSA will continue to accept public comments on the issue through December 4, 2023, after which time it is scheduled to provide a final decision.

If it moves forward, the ARC airbag recall would be one of the largest in US history, and the most extensive auto safety callback since the Takata airbag recalls that took place over the last decade.

How the NHTSA ARC Recall Request Affects You: 3 Action Steps to Take Today

It can be frightening to think that if your vehicle is involved in a minor accident, pieces of shrapnel from the airbag could explode and seriously injure —or even kill—the occupants.

At this time, you can take a few steps to determine whether your vehicle may have a flawed airbag:

1. Find your vehicle’s VIN number and cross-check it at NHTSA’s website.

The vehicles with potentially dangerous ARC airbags include Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Buick, Ford, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Hummer, GMC, Oldsmobile, Isuzu, Saab, Pontiac, Hyundai, Saturn, and Kia vehicles manufactured between 2001 and 2017.

You can visit NHTSA’s website and enter your vehicle’s 17-digit VIN (listed on the left of your car’s windshield and on your registration card) to determine whether your vehicle is affected.

2. Check with the dealer or manufacturer to see if any remedies are available.

For instance, General Motors has announced a recall of nearly 1 million vehicles equipped with ARC inflators, including 2014-2017 Buick Enclaves, Chevrolet Traverses, and GMC Acadia SUVs.

The automaker claims it is doing so “out of an abundance of caution” after acknowledging that inflator explosions “may result in sharp metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants, resulting in serious injury or death.”

GM sent out letters to motorists this summer and will send out a second round of letters once a fix is widely available. If you fear driving your vehicle, the company said it will offer “courtesy transportation” on a case-by-case basis in the meantime.

3. Speak With an Experienced Auto Product Defect Attorney.

It’s a good idea to speak with legal counsel if you’re injured by your vehicle’s airbag. Talking to an experienced automobile products liability defect attorney can help you understand your full range of legal options. You may be entitled to legal compensation if your airbag is defective and you or a loved one were injured by a faulty ARC airbag inflator defect.

Contact an auto product liability lawyer at The Rothenberg Law Firm LLP.  We have over 50 years of experience in all areas of personal injury litigation and have won billions for our clients.

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