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Lancaster County man’s death from airbag prompts lawsuit, national recall

Kershaw resident Joel Knight died last month after his Ford pickup struck a cow on this stretch of S.C. 522 in Lancaster County. Knight’s family has filed a lawsuit alleging that his death was the result of a faulty airbag manufactured by a company with a history of defective products.
Kershaw resident Joel Knight died last month after his Ford pickup struck a cow on this stretch of S.C. 522 in Lancaster County. Knight’s family has filed a lawsuit alleging that his death was the result of a faulty airbag manufactured by a company with a history of defective products.

A Lancaster County man who was killed when his pickup struck a cow last month would still be alive had it not been for the truck’s defective airbag deploying violently, shooting a piece of shrapnel through his neck and spine, his family says in a lawsuit filed this week.

Joel Knight, 52, died Dec. 22 after his 2006 Ford Ranger hit a cow on S.C. 522 as he was driving to work, authorities have said. He was wearing a seatbelt, but an attorney representing Knight’s family says the truck’s airbag – the manufacturer of which is accused in multiple cases of injury and death resulting from defective products – ruptured violently. A piece of shrapnel from the exploding device pierced Knight’s neck and spine.

A suit filed this week by Knight’s estate accuses Ford Motor Company and Tokyo-based Takata Corp. of cutting corners by knowingly producing, purchasing and installing airbags they knew were defective and dangerous.

“They’ve been having problems, known defects and deaths since 2003 – for more than a decade,” said Drew Creech of Elrod Pope Law Firm in Rock Hill, which is representing the family. “It’s a problem they’ve known about and they made a deliberate decision not to recall.”

The lawsuit claims Ford and Takata knew of multiple cases of people being injured or killed by exploding airbags, including a pregnant Malaysian woman who died in July 2014 after a wreck and fatal airbag rupture similar to the one that killed Knight. And yet, the suit alleges, Takata and Ford still “put profits ahead of safety” by continuing to produce and install the defective airbags.

The inflator devices in question were developed by Takata in the late 1990s to make airbags more compact, reduce the toxic fumes earlier airbag models emitted and to save costs and maximize profit for Takata, the complaint states. The redesigned airbags are inflated by an ammonium nitrate-based explosive encased in a metal canister.

“Over time, it becomes highly volatile and it causes an explosion much greater than normally anticipated,” Creech said. When the airbag deploys, the metal cylinder inside the canister ruptures in half and shoots out of the canister “like a bullet coming out of a rifle barrel.”

The complaint references an additional case of an “otherwise non-catastrophic” collision that involved an exploding airbag. In that case, police opened a homicide investigation because they believed the deceased driver had been stabbed multiple times in the head and neck before the victim crashed her car. The wounds were actually the result of a Takata airbag exploding, sending metal and plastic fragments into her body.

Creech said Ford and Takata recalled only a handful of vehicles despite knowing of many such cases, including the crash that killed the Malaysian woman, whose Honda had the same airbag and inflator model as Knight’s Ford Ranger.

“Ford was certainly aware of her death, aware of the massive (Takata airbag) recall, yet Ford chose not to recall the Ford Rangers,” Creech said. “They eventually did a very limited recall in a very select few states for the 2004 and 2005 Ford Ranger. They never recalled the 2006 Ford Ranger at all, even though they knew the same inflator model was in the Ranger.”

Knight is believed to be the ninth person killed in the United States as a result of the defective airbags, federal regulators say. His death last month prompted Takata and Ford to expand a recall this week to include trucks made from 2004 through 2006 in the U.S. and Canada. Ford alone is recalling 391,000 Rangers made during that time.

Federal regulators say this latest recall will affect about 5 million vehicles, including those made by Audi, BMW, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Mercedes Benz, Saab and Volkswagen. Click here or visit SaferCar.gov to see if your vehicle is included in the recall.

Creech said the recall is a small solace to Knight’s family, still grieving from a loss caused by a device that was intended to save lives.

“What we hope is that auto manufacturers who continue to have these defective airbags will begin making pre-emptive recalls and not wait till yet another death occurs before they issue the next set of recalls,” he said. “... If but for those airbags, Joel Knight would have gotten out of that car, he would have gone back home and he would have had supper with his wife and continue to be with everybody today.”

The suit also names the owner of the cow on S.C. 522 as a defendant. The defendants have 30 days to respond to the complaint after being served. Creech said it’s too early to discuss whether they would be open to accepting a settlement.

“Our heartfelt condolences go out to the driver's family," Takata has said in statements to multiple outlets. “We are cooperating fully with regulators and our automotive customers and continue to take aggressive action to advance vehicle safety, including through our ongoing testing efforts, replacement kit production and raising consumer awareness of recalled vehicles.”

Teddy Kulmala: 803-329-4082, @teddy_kulmala

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