The Tragedy That Led to GM's Chevy Cruze Recall

General Motors Cruze Recall
David Zalubowski/AP

By Ben Klayman and Jessica Dye

DETROIT and NEW YORK -- An accident that left a Georgia woman blind in one eye and a subsequent lawsuit led to General Motors' (GM) recall of about 33,000 Chevrolet Cruze sedans in North America for potentially defective air bags made by Takata.

The lawsuit by Brandi Owens, filed in late April in federal court in Atlanta against GM and Takata, claims her car and driver-side air bag were "defective and unreasonably dangerous," citing a problem that has dogged Takata for several years -- air bag inflators that explode with too much force. More than 10.5 million vehicles with Takata air bags have been recalled globally.

Owens, 25 at the time of the October 2013 accident, is seeking unspecified damages.

Owens' attorney declined to comment on the lawsuit. Takata's U.S. spokesman didn't return calls and emails seeking comment.

In documents filed on Thursday with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM said it had learned of a lawsuit on May 1 regarding a Chevrolet Cruze with an improperly deployed air bag. GM inspected the vehicle four days later and briefed officials at the U.S. safety agency in late May and twice in early June.

GM didn't identify the lawsuit in its filing, but a source familiar with the matter said it was the Owens case.

NHTSA said it was aware of GM's recall to replace driver-side air bags in order to correct Takata inflators made with an incorrect part, "which can result in the inflator rupturing during deployment and can lead to metal fragments striking occupants and no inflation of the air bag."

Takata faces a growing number of recalls to fix air bags deemed at risk of exploding and shooting shrapnel at drivers and passengers.

This week, Honda (HMC) and other Japanese automakers recalled almost 3 million cars globally for potentially defective air bags, and seven automakers recalled a smaller number in the United States to replace air bag inflators possibly damaged by humid conditions.

The U.S. recalls were the result of a probe NHTSA opened earlier this month into more than 1 million vehicles made by several automakers, after the safety agency received six reports of air bags not deploying properly in the humid climates of Florida and Puerto Rico.

%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-947%Owens' accident wasn't cited in the agency's investigation documents. NHTSA said the Cruze inflators are a newer and different design than those used in the cars already being probed by the agency. NHTSA also said the Cruze recall wasn't related to the other U.S. recalls.

In Owens' accident, which occurred in stop-and-go traffic in Forsyth County, Georgia, her red 2013 Cruze bumped the car in front of her and the air bag deployed "with such force that it detached from the steering wheel and struck [her] in the face, causing her left eye to rupture," according to the lawsuit. "She is now permanently and completely blind in her left eye."

Owens, in her lawsuit, said her car's driver-side air bag shouldn't have deployed and the inflators were "over-powered and exploded."

The accident report filed by police cited Owens for following the vehicle in front of her too closely, but described her as being "in shock" after the accident. The police report also noted the air bag in Owens' car was in the back seat when the officer arrived.

GM, which also has been dealing with fallout from a defective ignition switch linked to at least 13 deaths, said in the NHTSA filing that it was recalling certain Cruze cars, most in the United States, from model years 2013 and 2014 because the air bags could fail to inflate or the inflators could rupture during deployment.

GM said Takata from June 11-19 analyzed inflators built around the same time as the ones in Owens' accident and on June 20 Takata told GM it had found the cause.

GM has said the issue wasn't directly related to other problems with Takata air bags that have led to the wide global recall of vehicles, many made by Honda and Toyota Motor (TM). However, Takata inflators exploding with too much force have been blamed over the last several years in numerous consumer complaints filed with NHTSA and in lawsuits against the supplier.

The case is Owens v. General Motors, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, No. 14-1259.

GM to Dealers: Stop Selling Chevy Cruzes
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