U.S. safety investigators, who are already probing suspected flaws in automobile airbags made by Takata Corp., have opened a similar inquiry of those made by another company.
Inflators made by ARC Automotive Inc., which supplied parts to minivans made by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and a Kia Motors Corp. sedan, were involved in two incidents reported to regulators that merit further investigation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday in documents posted on its website.
“Given the potential for injury and the safety-critical nature of airbags, NHTSA has opened this investigation to collect all the relevant data and determine the appropriate steps for safety,” agency spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said in an e-mailed statement.
NHTSA has been trying to speed the pace of repairs related to Takata-supplied airbags, with recalls now affecting 34 million inflators. The agency confirmed a seventh U.S. death linked to airbags that inflate with too much force.
ARC Automotive, a closely held maker of airbag inflators based in Knoxville, Tennessee, said in an e-mailed statement it has been notified about the defect investigation and is cooperating.
“We will continue to put our focus where it should be: on the safety and security of drivers,” according to the company, which was formed in 1949 as Atlantic Research Corp. to develop propellants for the Defense Department. It licensed inflator technology to carmakers beginning in 2002, according to its website.
Fiat Chrysler also is cooperating with the agency’s investigation, said Eric Mayne, a spokesman for the company’s Auburn Hills, Michigan-based U.S. unit.
“We no longer use this inflator,” Mayne said. “Any questions pertaining to other vehicles are highly speculative, especially considering NHTSA’s inquiry is in progress.”
The latest investigation began with a report regulators received in December about an incident involving a 2002 Chrysler Town and Country minivan. In that case, an ARC inflator was placed in an airbag module assembled by another parts supplier, Key Safety Systems. Preliminary analysis suggests the gas used to inflate the bag may have been blocked by “an object of indeterminate origin” leading to an explosion, NHTSA said.
The accident led to a lawsuit filed in state court in Ohio. The explosion shot metal through the driver’s neck and into her spine and sent shards into her chest and jaw, according to the lawsuit. The case against Key Safety Systems settled quickly, plaintiffs’ attorney James Lowe, told Bloomberg News in an interview in October.
The complaint says the driver, Lois Dutton, suffered “severe and disabling physical injuries, both physical and mental pain and suffering, was required to be hospitalized continuously for more than three months.” Neither the complaint nor NHTSA’s summary indicates a fatality.
Lowe said Tuesday he hadn’t been aware of NHTSA’s investigation. Chrysler wasn’t named in the lawsuit because the accident occurred during the company’s bankruptcy.
“She got creamed,” Lowe said of Dutton. “It was like an IED explosion.”
The cause of the second incident, reported to NHTSA in June, hasn’t been determined, Trowbridge said. That case involved a 2004 Kia Optima in New Mexico. The airbag module in that vehicle was supplied by Delphi Automotive Plc, NHTSA said. There was an injury in the accident, according to the agency.
Kia Motors proactively notified NHTSA after learning of its single airbag inflator incident, company spokesman Scott McKee said in an e-mailed statement.
“Although we are not the subject of the investigation, we are taking this matter very seriously and support NHTSA’s action and will continue working cooperatively with the agency and suppliers throughout the process,” McKee said.
(With assistance from Jeff Green in Southfield, Michigan and Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit.)
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