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Air Bag Lawsuits Blame Nissan for Eye Injuries

Safety groups, alleged victims say the passenger-side bags in certain Altimas have caused blindness in minor crashes. The automaker denies a defect.

November 18, 2002|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

Ali Warsome is blind. This is how it happened:

In April, he was riding in a car that hit a divider on a roadway in Washington, D.C. It wasn't much of a wreck; the '94 Nissan Altima didn't even need a tow.

But the air bag struck his face with such force that Warsome's battered left eye had to be removed. Surgeons were unable to restore the vision in his right eye because "the retina was completely shredded," according to his medical records.

"I cannot see the sky anymore," said Warsome, 74, a Somali immigrant, speaking through an interpreter. "I cannot cook, I cannot walk, I cannot help my grandchildren.... I don't know what to do."

To do their job properly, air bags must inflate at lightning speed, so there always is a chance they can cause an injury. But safety groups and alleged victims say the passenger-side air bags in certain Altimas -- the 1994 and early '95 models -- can inflict a terrible sort of damage.

They say the air bags are responsible for at least 40 cases of severe eye injury, including permanent blindness in one or both eyes in some instances. Often, these injuries to passengers have occurred in crashes so minor that the drivers of the cars were unharmed.

Nissan staunchly denies that the air bags are defective, saying the frequency and severity of eye injuries from them are similar to those in other cars. "We know it's a high-quality bag ... and performs well in the field," said Scott Vazin, a spokesman for Torrance-based Nissan North America Inc.

But consumer groups are pressing the matter hard. "People should not lose their vision because a driver hits a curb or has a fender-bender," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, which has demanded a recall.

Added Clarence Ditlow, who heads the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group based in Washington: "I've never seen a defect like this, which has such a singular injury mode -- which is physically blinding someone."

The air bags are the focus of a long-running investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which could demand a recall of nearly 200,000 cars if it finds they are defective.

Lawrence Baron, a Portland, Ore., lawyer who has sued Nissan on behalf of more than a dozen alleged victims, contends that videos obtained from Nissan during legal discovery reveal the unusual danger the air bags pose.

Baron said that unlike most air bags that unfold laterally in a pillow-like shape, the Altima air bags in question deploy rearward like a fist into the passenger area. He and others have compared the effect to that of a boxing glove thudding into a passenger's face at close to 160 mph.

Nissan switched to a new air bag design midway through the '95 model year. Consumer groups say this was a quiet decision to scrap an air bag the company knew was unsafe.

But Bob Yakushi, Nissan's senior manager of auto safety engineering, said the design change had long been in the works and was not prompted by safety concerns. As for the boxing-glove comparison, Yakushi said the air bag "deployment pattern" in the early models is similar to that in some other vehicles.

"You can't just look at shape [of the air bag] and come to the conclusion that that's the cause of the injury," he said.

Clouding the debate is the lack of thorough, widely accepted data on rates of air bag-related injuries in various models of cars and trucks. However, information gathered by NHTSA in the investigation does suggest that Altimas are different.

The agency asked Nissan and 12 other manufacturers to disclose the number of reports of eye or facial injuries from passenger-side air bags. There were 75 such reports involving the nearly 249,000 Altimas produced in '94 and early '95. There were 57 complaints for about 3.5 million vehicles produced by other manufacturers. For each 100,000 vehicles, there were 30 reports of Altima injuries and 1.5 for the other vehicles -- a ratio of 20 to 1.

But in a case of dueling statistics, Nissan has cited a New York state database that it says shows the Altima with an above-average record of avoiding air bag injuries to the face and eyes. Opponents contend that the New York data are too vague and incomplete to allow useful comparisons.

NHTSA began investigating the air bags in March 2001. The length of the probe may be due to the complexity of the case and the agency's big workload. But impatient safety advocates charge that the case also has been prolonged by the role of former agency officials in defending the air bags.

Erika Z. Jones, NHTSA's top lawyer from 1985 to '89, has represented Nissan in the defect probe. Paul Jackson Rice, who followed Jones as NHTSA chief counsel, has weighed in on behalf of the air bag supplier, Takata-Gerico Inc.

Said Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety: "I have never seen an investigation where you have two former chief counsels working to block a recall."

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