By Myron Levin, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Nissan Motor Co. has quietly developed a possible replacement for air bags in some of its Altima cars that are linked to severe eye injuries, newly disclosed documents show, even though the automaker has publicly denied there is any safety problem.
A least 40 people have suffered eye injuries or blindness when passenger-side air bags deployed in the Altimas, often in minor crashes, say safety groups and lawyers for people who have sued Torrance-based Nissan North America Inc.
Since March 2001, federal safety regulators have been conducting an investigation, which could lead to the recall of nearly 200,000 cars.
Though Nissan maintains that the air bags are as safe as those in other cars, documents show that the company began developing a possible replacement two years ago — even before federal authorities began their safety investigation.
According to a Nissan memo to the government, the company has ordered and tested several of the potential substitute air bags but has no plans to offer them to car owners.
The papers show "there is a viable recall remedy … to put in the vehicles to save people from being blinded," said Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington consumer organization.
The group obtained the documents from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after filing a public records lawsuit against the agency. "There’s a fix, and it’s being withheld," Ditlow said.
NHTSA officials declined to comment.
The air bags in question were installed only in Altimas produced in 1994 and early ’95. Company officials say that customer relations — rather than safety — prompted them to begin work in late 2000 on a possible air bag substitute.
According to a memo filed with NHTSA, Nissan began the work after being approached by a news organization for what the company assumed would be "a sensationalized television show about the air bag."
Nissan representatives were "informed that the theory of the story would be that the … Altima air bag was too ‘aggressive’ or too ‘powerful.’ … Consideration was given to possible consumer dissatisfaction with the early Altima air bag in the event of a sensationalized television broadcast critical of the … Altima air bag’s energy level," the memo to NHTSA said.
Although not mentioned by name in the memo, "Dateline NBC" contacted Nissan in late 2000.
"Dateline" eventually aired a report on the air bags last July.
In the meantime, according to the memo, Nissan immediately sought help from air bag maker Takata to design a substitute.
A chronology contained in the memo shows that Nissan approved a final design in April 2001, and weeks later received sample air bags for testing.
At least 30 people have sued Nissan, claiming severe eye injuries from the air bags.
But the company says the bags have been unfairly attacked because of plaintiffs’ lawyers fanning erroneous news reports.
"This is a quality air bag…. There is no safety defect," said Kyle Bazemore, a spokesman for Nissan North America.
Nissan decided to design a substitute "when we were confronted with the sensationalistic and erroneous information by the plaintiffs’ attorneys," Bazemore said. "We requested to develop a de-powered air bag simply as a proactive measure in case it was needed for customer satisfaction," he said.
Lawrence Baron, a Portland, Ore., lawyer who has sued Nissan on behalf of more than a dozen people, said the company’s explanation is "kind of bizarre."
"This is an admission, in my mind, that they knew in November of 2000" that the air bag was defective, Baron said. "It’s inexcusable that they would continue to let the air bag blind people when they have a fix."
The Nissan memo, dated Aug. 9, 2002, was one of a number of documents NHTSA provided this week to the Center for Auto Safety, which gave a copy to The Times.
Last week, the center sued NHTSA under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming the agency had illegally withheld records pertaining to a meeting held June 28 between Nissan and NHTSA officials.
Nissan was represented at the meeting by Erika Z. Jones, a private attorney who had served as NHTSA’s chief counsel from 1985 to ’89.
Work on the possible replacement air bag was among topics discussed at the meeting. After the agency sought additional details, Nissan provided a chronology of the work in the Aug. 9 memo.
The chronology raises questions about information provided by a Takata affiliate in an earlier phase of the investigation.
NHTSA records show that in a letter to Takata on Oct. 17, 2001, the agency requested records of "any study, survey or investigation pertaining to the alleged defect" in the air bags.
The Takata affiliate, TK Holdings Inc., responded Jan. 15 that it had "not conducted any study, survey or investigation pertaining to the alleged defect." However, the Nissan chronology indicates that development work on a substitute air bag was far along by then.
"There’s no question … they [Takata] should have" disclosed the work on the substitute air bag, Ditlow said.
NHTSA officials declined to discuss Takata’s letter. Officials and a lawyer for the firm did not return phone calls.