Honda Motor Co.'s U.S. unit advised dealers not to contact customers about a potentially fatal defect because of a parts shortage, one week before shrapnel from an exploding airbag left a woman looking as if she had been killed with a knife, lawyers for her family said.
"Because not all part numbers are available in abundant supply, American Honda asks that dealers do not proactively contact customers at this time," the company's technical division wrote in a Sept. 22 message, according to documents filed with a lawsuit Monday by the family of Hien Tran, 51, who died from her wounds on Oct. 2.
Honda's admonishment was part of a multiyear campaign by the Japanese automaker and airbag maker Takata Corp. to delay letting consumers and regulators know of the potential risk of exploding airbags, lawyers for Tran's family alleged in the complaint in Florida state court in Orlando.
Honda has recalled almost 6.2 million vehicles globally over Takata airbags, stretching back to as early as 2008 in the U.S.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a special order Oct. 30 asking Takata for answers under oath to 36 questions about quality-control, factory conditions, and its attempt to investigate defect reports.
Takata must reply by Dec. 1 or pay fines of up to $35 million. Police documents and court filings describe Takata's airbags deploying with so much force that their metal housing became shrapnel.
The exact causes are still unclear and NHTSA is investigating whether high humidity plays a role.
Chris Martin, a spokesman for Honda North America Inc., and Alby Berman, a spokesman for Takata, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Honda and Takata underreported incidents, settled lawsuits and claims quietly and conducted sporadic, inadequate recalls to "intentionally and actively conceal information about this safety defect," Tran's lawyers alleged in the complaint.
"Since 2004, both Honda and Takata have had a growing and continuing awareness of consumer complaints, claims and lawsuits that has provided them with knowledge of the safety dangers of Takata airbags used by Honda," the plaintiffs said. "Such knowledge, however, has been closely held amongst and between Honda and Takata, while incident after incident occurred."
The cuts on the right side of Tran's neck after the low-speed crash of her 2001 Honda Accord were so similar to knife wounds that investigating officers initially even identified a "person of interest" in her possible murder, according to court papers filed in the suit.
The recall notice, identifying her real killer, arrived after she had already died.
This reaction wasn't uncommon, the plaintiffs' lawyers claimed.
"In recent exploding airbag incidents, first responders have been baffled by the fact that victims of apparently minor accident suffered injuries more consistent with being shot or stabbed repeatedly," according to the Tran family complaint.
The deep cuts in her neck couldn't be explained by the force of the crash or from broken windows or debris, according to the police report.
The Tran case is still under investigation at the Florida Highway Patrol, Sgt. Kim Montes said in an interview.
Honda has said it has linked Takata airbag defects to three deaths, including a pregnant woman in Malaysia, and at least 30 injuries and is studying two more deaths, including the Tran accident.
The lawsuit was filed by Tran's estate, her four sisters and four brothers, against Honda and Takata. Tran was unmarried and had no children.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and transportation said last week that it plans a hearing for Thursday "to focus on how defective Takata air bags became installed in so many vehicles and the responses of both automakers and" regulators to protect consumers.
Honda and Takata knew that the airbags in the 2001 Accord had been connected to other incidents, including two deaths in 2009, the lawyers in the Tran suit contend.
Recalls ordered on the 2001 Accord had never been completed, they claimed.
Tran had never received any notices of a recall until after she died, according to the complaint. One mailing came in October, entitled "Important Safety Recall Notice,' and another came this month, titled ''Urgent Recall Notice Airbag Inflator,'' Tran family lawyers said.
This second notice is ''more appropriate for the risks and hazards posed by these airbags,'' the lawyers said. Honda had enough knowledge to send the recall notices before Tran's death, they contend.
Tran's death was ''an unnecessary tragedy that could have been prevented if Honda and Takata had addressed and cured the problems they knew of a decade ago," Hank Didier, attorney for the family, said in an e-mail Monday.