GLOBAL VEHICLE RECALL: Takata is at the centre of a global vehicle recall due to defective air bags linked to several deaths. Image: AP / Shizuo Kambayashi
TOKYO, Japan - Takata confirmed on Friday (Nov 14) that US justice authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the embattled Japanese part company over exploding air bags linked to the deaths of at least five drivers.
Takata said it was "dealing with" a subpoena from a Grand Jury in New York targeting the defect butdeclined to give further details.
A Takata spokesman said, howerver: "We have received it. Of course, we are dealing with it. We have also received an instruction from the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US) to deal with it."
GLOBAL CRASH-BAG CRISIS
The US federal Grand Jury and the NHTSA have also told the company to submit documents related to air-bag problems, Takata said.
The safety watchdog has expanded its "urgent" warning to owners of cars with affected bags to take them to a dealer to fix the problem immediately.
Some 16-million vehicles produced by 10 global automakers have been recalled worldwide because of worries that the Takata bags in them could inflate too explosively and send potentially lethal shrapnel across the cabin. Affected automakers include Honda, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota.
Four deaths have been reported in the US. On Thursday (Nov 14) Honda said an exploding bag killed a woman in Malaysia and it recalled a further 170 000 vehicles worldwide as a consequence.
Police reportedly investigated the death of at least one driver the US as murder due to the woman's grisly injuries, until their focus switched to the vehicle's bag.
The US criminal investigation comes amid lawsuits and regulatory probes against the 80-year-old company, whose top executives have been largely mute on the mounting crisis. US Senator Claire McCaskill said: "When companies put their own profits ahead of the lives of Americans they deserve to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
"I'm pleased the US Attorney has taken swift action to open a criminal probe." COVER-UP CLAIMS
McCaskill's statement came as the powerful Senate commerce committee, announced that it was holding a hearing next Thursday on the Takata bags case, including how the company and US auto safety regulators have tackled the issue since the recalls began in 2008.
A committee statement read: "The hearing will focus on how defective Takata air bags became installed in so many vehicles and the responses of both the automakers and the NHTSA to remedy the safety defect to protect people."
Takata, whose Tokyo-listed shares have lost about half their value since an investigation was opened mid-2014 has warned of a bigger-than-expected annual loss due to the bags issue. In a statement late on Thursday (Nov 13) Takata said it had accounted for costs tied to the recalls,but could not predict its total financial liabilities.
TESTS 'NOT RELATED'
Also on Thursday, Takata rejected a high-profile report that claimed it had covered up the results of tests on the faulty bags a decade ago. Quoting former Takata employees, the New York Times reported that tests were conducted by its US subsidiary in 2004 but executives ordered the destruction of data that exposed design flaws.
Takata said the tests were unrelated to the inflator mechanism at the centre of the current probes.
The Times, as it reported Takata's rebuttal, quoted an unnamed former Takata employee as saying "What Takata says is not true."
Founded in 1933 as a textile company, Takata evolved into an automotive parts giant that started selling air bags in the 1980's and now plants and offices in 20 countries, among the the US, China and Mexico.
The air-bag division accounts for about 40% of its total revenue, equivalent to R54-billion, during the previous fiscal year.