WASHINGTON (Reuters) - General Motors Co (GM.N), Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE), Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCHA.MI) and Daimler AG (DAIGn.DE) knew of problems with Takata air bag inflators and should have moved faster to recall vehicles, according to company documents cited on Wednesday by owners suing the automakers.
Amended class-action complaints filed in U.S. District Court in Miami say the four automakers knowingly misrepresented their vehicles as safe. The lawsuits, which claim economic losses, cite internal company documents that suggest the automakers knew of issues earlier than previously known - and well before issuing recalls.
“These auto manufacturers were well aware of the public safety risks posed by Takata’s airbags long ago, and still waited years to disclose them to the public and take action,” said Peter Prieto, a lawyer for the owners.
At least 22 deaths and hundreds of injuries worldwide are linked to the Takata inflators that can explode with excessive force, unleashing metal shrapnel inside cars and trucks. The defect led Takata to file for bankruptcy protection in June.
GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson said there were no ruptures of GM inflators at issue. “The lawsuit is baseless and without merit and misstates a host of material facts. We intend to defend it vigorously,” he said.
Fiat Chrysler and Volkswagen declined to comment. Daimler said in a statement it regarded “the accusations as unfounded.”
Takata said in June it had recalled, or expected to recall, inflators in about 125 million vehicles worldwide by 2019, including more than 60 million in the United States in vehicles built by 19 automakers.
Other automakers have settled economic loss cases that are part of the same legal battle in Florida, worth more than $1.2 billion in total. In September, Honda Motor Co (7267.T) agreed to a $605 million settlement.
A federal judge in Miami previously approved settlements with Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), Subaru Corp (7270.T), BMW AG (BMWG.DE), Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) and Mazda Motor Corp (7261.T) totaling $650 million. A similar suit against Ford Motor Co (F.N) is pending.
The settlements covered several forms of economic damages linked to the inflators, including claims that vehicles were inaccurately represented to be safe, and that buyers had overpaid for cars with defective or substandard air bags.
All but two of the 22 deaths occurred in Honda vehicles. The remaining two deaths occurred in 2006 Ford pickup trucks.
In 2017, Takata pleaded guilty to criminal wrongdoing and paid nearly $1 billion to resolve a U.S. federal investigation into its inflators.
A U.S. Senate panel will hold a hearing next Tuesday on the Takata recalls.
Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney