Motley Rice files suit against airbag-maker Takata in Charleston woman's death (copy)

Senate Commerce Committee member Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., displays the parts of a defective airbag made by Takata of Japan that has been linked to multiple deaths and injuries in cars driven in the U.S. during a hearing.

Despite recalls that began in 2015, more than 200,000 South Carolina cars are being driven with defective airbags made by the Takata Corp. The airbags can explode on impact and send shrapnel outward, injuring or killing drivers and passengers during even a minor crash, experts warn.

The Takata airbag recall, the largest auto recall in history, has affected around 70 million airbags, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Car owners can have the issue repaired for free by their dealers but many drivers haven't received the notices or haven't taken the risk seriously. 

The airbag's inflator is a metal cartridge with an ammonium nitrate-based propellant. If the airbag improperly inflates during a crash, the inflator can rupture and send metal shards throughout the automobile. The NHTSA determined that environmental moisture, high temperatures and age can increase the likelihood of disaster.

With heat and humidity making the defect worse, older cars in South Carolina are particularly at risk. To spur state drivers into checking their car's recall status, officials declared September "Airbag Recall Repair Month." An estimated 1,600 people in South Carolina checked their recall status as a result, according to National Safety Council "Check to Protect" spokesman Tom Musick.

That doesn't come close to all the South Carolina vehicles currently affected, however. About 208,000 defective airbags are still in South Carolina cars being driven, according to the latest estimate by the NHTSA.

One South Carolina family didn't know about the defect until it was too late. Joel Knight was driving his 2006 Ford Ranger to work in Kershaw on Dec. 22, 2015 when he struck a cow in the middle of the road in Lancaster County. His airbag exploded and sent shrapnel into his neck, lacerating blood vessels and fracturing vertebrae. He died at the scene.

Knight's family sued the Takata Corp. and Ford Motor Co., alleging both companies knew about the defect but refused to fix the problem or appropriately notify drivers of the danger. 

The suit argued Knight would have been less injured without the airbag. Court records describe how the airbag "ruptured violently, much like a hand grenade."

While a recall had been issued for the 2006 Ford Ranger's passenger side airbag, no recall had been issued for the driver's side. The Knight family didn't receive notice of any recall, the suit alleged. In 2016, the NHTSA inspected Knight's car and immediately recalled 5 million more vehicles, the suit said.

"Takata and Ford both both put profits ahead of safety," the suit argued, alleging that Takata "cut corners to build cheaper airbags" and Ford bought from Takata to save money. In responses to the suit, both companies denied allegations of wrongdoing.

The suit ended quickly in a confidential settlement, according to the Knights' lawyer, Drew Creech of the Elrod Pope Law Firm in Rock Hill. Years later, he's troubled by how many Takata airbags are still on the road, as well as the lack of responsibility shown by auto manufacturers.

"They've known for years. They were basically just waiting until someone was killed or injured to make another recall," Creech said.

Takata declared bankruptcy in 2017. Money was put aside to compensate those affected by the defective airbags, but it isn't nearly enough, Creech said.

"They're basically paying these victims peanuts, pennies on the dollar for what their cases are really worth," Creech said.

Kevin Dean, an attorney with the Motley Rice firm in Mount Pleasant, has handled more than 100 cases involving Takata airbags. About a dozen of these cases were for South Carolina plaintiffs, Dean said.

According to Dean, two funds are available for settlements, totaling around $250 million. It's adequate funding for now, he said, but there's a lot of uncertainty about the future.

"The auto manufacturers continue to delay implementing timely, updated recalls," Dean said. Multiple generations of the defective inflator were produced, some as late as 2016 or 2017, well after recalls began for the product. While the defective inflators started appearing in cars in 2001, problems began arising around 2004, when it became obvious the inflators were very unstable and had a limited shelf life.

Dean warned that vehicles driven by the elderly or the young are probably at risk since those drivers are the least likely to be receiving or paying attention to notices that the airbags need to be replaced. Such drivers may not have the car in their own names. If a person drives a used vehicle, that can also make it harder for manufacturers to reach them with notices of a recall.

The majority of his clients have told Dean they had no idea their airbags were defective. Regulating agencies haven't been doing enough, Dean said, and in his opinion, they've been working more for the auto manufacturers than the public.

"Everybody turned a blind eye," Dean said.

Car owners can check whether their vehicle is under recall at checktoprotect.org using their vehicle identification number.

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Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

Fleming Smith covers breaking news for the Charleston area. A native Georgian, she previously covered breaking news and features for The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.