Man dies when air bag inflator ruptures during car repair

Another person has been killed in the U.S. by an exploding Takata air bag inflator, but this death wasn't the result of a crash.

Ramon V. Kuffo, 81, of Hialeah, Florida, was working inside a 2001 Honda Accord using a hammer when the air bag inflator ruptured, on June 18, 2016. A medical examiner ruled his death accidental due to head trauma, according to a Hialeah police report.

It's the 12th U.S. death attributed to the faulty inflators and 17th worldwide, including five in Malaysia. Takata inflators can explode with too much force when exposed to prolonged airborne moisture and hot-and-cold temperature cycles. If that happens, the inflators can blow apart a metal canister and shoot out shrapnel which can kill or injure people. More than 180 people have been hurt in the U.S. alone.

The problem touched off the largest automotive recall in U.S. history involving up to 69 million inflators and 42 million vehicles. Honda was Takata's biggest customer before the problems surfaced. Last month Takata filed for bankruptcy protection in both Japan and the U.S. and most of its assets were bought by rival Key Safety Systems.

According to police, Kuffo was in the back yard of his home near Miami, working on a silver 2001 Honda Accord, when a neighbor heard a loud bang. The neighbor went outside and found Kuffo sitting in the passenger seat of the car unconscious and bleeding from his face. Kuffo was taken to a trauma center, where he died the next day. Both air bags had inflated.

Honda released some details of the death on Monday and said it only recently found out about it. The company has not been able to inspect the car and is relying on police photos to make its determination, Honda spokesman Chris Martin said.

The victim, who police said was not the car's owner, was working on the interior of the car with a hammer and had taken apart the car's center console, but it wasn't clear what he was trying to fix. It's also not clear why the air bag deployed, but police photos show the metal driver's side inflator ruptured and shot out fragments, Honda said. The car's ignition switch was on, so the air bag would have been ready in case of a crash, according to Honda. Martin noted that there is a deceleration sensor that activates the air bags mounted on the wall between the engine and passenger compartment.

"The rupture most likely contributed to his death," Martin said.

The 2001 Accord has one of the most dangerous types of Takata driver's side air bag inflators. Laboratory tests show they have as high as a 50 percent chance of blowing apart in a crash.

Honda urged owners who have received recall notices to get repairs made as soon as possible, especially those with the most dangerous type of inflator. Those models are the 2001 and 2002 Accord and Civic, the 2002 CR-V and Odyssey, the 2002 and 2003 Acura 3.2 TL, the 2003 Acura 3.2 CL and the 2003 Pilot. Honda says it has sufficient supplies of replacement inflators available to fix all of its recalled vehicles.

"It's essential to safety that high-risk inflators are replaced immediately," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement.

Honda says its service procedures recommend disconnecting the battery when working on the air bag system. Owners can go online and subscribe to Honda service manuals and find out proper procedures for many repairs. It costs about $10 per day, Martin said.

Multiple owners of the car were mailed 12 recall notices over seven years. "Our records indicate that the recall repair was never completed on this vehicle," Honda said in a statement.


Associated Press writer Jennifer Kay in Miami Beach, Florida, contributed to this story.