Fatal Houston Fender-Bender Shows Shortcomings of Recalls

By , and | February 2, 2015

By the time Carlos Solis IV laid eyes on the silver Honda Accord in a Texas used-car lot last April, the sedan had changed hands twice, been in at least two crashes and still had a defective air bag that had been recalled three years earlier.

Honda Motor Co. said it has been aggressively trying to contact vehicle owners such as Solis to get their air bags repaired, but it hadn’t reached out to him.

Last week the automaker confirmed the air bag in Solis’s car ruptured during a fender-bender on Jan. 18, making him the fourth confirmed case in the U.S. of someone being killed by shards of metal sprayed from a malfunctioning device. A fifth case in California is under review, and one in Malaysia has been linked to air bags.

“I feel sorry for the guy,” said Sam Atia, the owner of All Stars Auto Sales in Cypress, Texas, the community northwest of Houston where Solis bought the car in April. Atia said he didn’t know the car had been recalled. “This never happened to me before.”

The death of the 35-year-old father of two teenagers highlights what critics say is the ineffectiveness of a system in the U.S. where, on average, a third of repairs still aren’t complete within 18 months of a manufacturer issuing a recall. As cars changed hands and automakers lose track, motorists often don’t know they are driving a car with a deadly defect.

An estimated 46 million cars with unfixed recalls were on the road at the end of last year and as many as 5 million of those, like Solis’s, changed ownership in 2014, according to Carfax Inc., which tracks vehicle sales and accident history.

Buyer’s Responsibility

Atia said he gave Solis the car’s vehicle identification number so he could check the history himself. It’s the responsibility of the customer to look that up, he said.

In fact, dealers aren’t required by law to get recall repairs done before selling a used car — though they should be, said Rosemary Shahan, president of the Sacramento, California- based Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. People wrongly assume the cars they buy are up to date on recalls when buying from a dealer.

In the U.S., once a manufacturer or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determines a vehicle is defective, the automaker will usually agree to voluntarily issue a recall and to fix the defect for free. All the owner has to do is take it to a dealership affiliated with the manufacturer for a free repair.

As Solis’s death shows, that doesn’t always happen. Cars can be legally bought and sold, pass state safety inspections and be titled and retitled even with outstanding recalls.

2001 Sale

The 2002 Accord that Solis would eventually buy was first sold in September 2001 in the Laredo, Texas, area, according to Carfax, which motorists can access for free online for recall information. Carfax is a unit of IHS Inc., based in Englewood, Colorado.

The Accord was sold to a second owner in May 2011 with about 63,700 miles on the odometer, according to Carfax. The month before, Honda had issued a recall for that car’s air bags and more than 1 million others. By January 2013, the most recent data available, about 47 percent of the vehicles involved in that recall had yet to be repaired.

The Accord Solis bought in April 2014 was part of a second recall in June of that year that involved 5.4 million vehicles. Only 6 percent of those vehicles have been fixed, Honda told NHTSA in a Jan. 15 update.

As many as 20 million vehicles from various manufacturers have been recalled since 2008 in connection with defects related to air bags made by Tokyo-based Takata Corp., according to a list kept by the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer watchdog group. In addition to the known deaths, at least 64 people have been injured in incidents involving exploding Takata air bags, according to U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat.

Not Repaired

The air bags in Solis’s Accord didn’t get fixed, and in June 2011 the car was in an accident. It passed a state safety inspection in November, and another one a year later.

In May 2013 the car was in another accident, a crash with another vehicle that caused minor front damage although air bags did not deploy, according to Carfax. The insurance company declared the vehicle a total loss, though the car continued to operate.

The Accord passed emission inspection in February 2014, and Atia said he bought it at an auction in March 2014, the month before he sold it to Solis. He didn’t have the Carfax report and records show it passed another emission inspection that month.

“I sell it as is,” Atia said in an interview. “We do maintenance on it. I even get in and drive it.”

Dealers who operate under franchise agreements with the automakers are required to carry out recall repairs on new, but not used, cars before selling them.

All Stars

As an independent dealership, All Stars Auto Sales, about 25 miles northwest of downtown Houston, has no such obligation. Its main office is a mobile home surrounded by late model vehicles of different brands, including some with heavy damage. Its website says All Stars “is founded on trust, integrity, and respect.”

Independent dealers aren’t even allowed to make manufacturer-ordered recall repairs, Shahan said. It would have to take a car to a facility affiliated with an automaker for a free repair, but many don’t.

“With any other consumer product, when there’s a recall retailers take it off the shelf immediately,” Shahan said. “Dealers are selling recalled cars without fixing them first.”

People should be able to trust that licensed dealers are not selling cars with known safety defects that have led to a federal safety recall, Shahan said.

Solis’s Accord was also part of another recall last year for the same air bag defect.

In testimony in November before a Senate committee, Rick Schostek, executive vice president of Honda North America, sought to reassure lawmakers that the Japanese carmaker was actively seeking owners of the affected cars. Going beyond required first-class letters, it was sending multiple mailings in both English and Spanish, some by overnight delivery, and even calling hard-to-reach customers, he said.

No Notice

As for Solis’s car, Honda sent recall notices to a previous owner but had not yet sent a notice to Solis, spokesman Chris Martin said.

Owners can check their vehicles’ recall status at company websites or by calling their Honda or Acura dealer, he said. They can also check for recalls at www.safercar.gov, a site operated by NHTSA.

It can take weeks or months for the parts to become available and even longer to get the cars repaired.

It’s rare that all cars get fixed because even once the parts are available, owners aren’t required to make the fix and there is no penalty for drivers who ignore automaker notices.

‘Minor Collision’

Solis’s death stemmed from a “relatively minor collision resulting in minimal damage to both vehicles,” according to a lawsuit his family filed Jan. 27 in Harris County, Texas, against Honda, Takata and All Stars.

The front air bag in the Accord deployed and the inflator exploded, sending bits of metal into Solis’s neck, according to the lawsuit.

He died at the scene. Solis left two children, a 14-year- old boy and a 13-year-old girl.

“Used car dealers have a responsibility to make sure they are selling safe vehicles, which includes identifying open recalls and working to get them repaired,” said Steve Jordan, chief executive officer of the National Independent Automobile Dealers in Arlington, Texas.

Competing Sellers

The current system is flawed because independent car dealers don’t have any better access to recall data than the consumer and aren’t allowed to fix the repairs in their shops, said Jordan, whose organization represents 16,000 dealers, about 80 percent of whom have fewer than five employees. All Stars Autos is not a member, he said.

It can be onerous for an independent dealer to get a recall repair done at an authorized new car dealer because often that dealer is also a competitor, Jordan said.

“If an independent dealer needs 10 parts fixed at his competitor down the road, is that competitor going to fix those cars first, or the cars of his own customers?” he said.

Getting recall repairs performed is more difficult when the defect involved vehicles such as Solis’s that are more than a decade old and have changed owners many times. Few of these vehicles end up at new car dealers where they can be more easily identified and repaired, said Marc Cannon, a spokesman for AutoNation Corp., the largest U.S. new car dealership chain.

AutoNation voluntarily stopped selling used vehicles with unrepaired recalls at the end of June last year and the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based company holds the models until they are fixed, he said.

“It’s a minuscule amount of our sales,” Cannon said. “You don’t find very many of these vehicles at franchised dealers because of their age.”

Reform Efforts

Each new death prompts fresh calls for changes.

The administration of President Barack Obama and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, have backed efforts to hold dealers more accountable for outstanding recalls. Watchdog groups, including Shahan’s organization, as well as the Center for Auto Safety, Consumers Union and the Trauma Foundation are also pushing for stricter oversight by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission of dealership sales practices.

The Transportation Department has proposed legislation that would require rental-car companies and used-car dealers to perform recall repairs. The measure, part of a larger transportation plan, hasn’t been taken up by Congress.

Honda has suggested that owners be denied new registration for vehicles with unfixed recalls.

Even while there’s no regulatory requirement for dealerships to conduct repairs on recalled vehicles or parts, it doesn’t get them off the hook for lawsuits over injuries or deaths, said Robert Ammons, the Solis family attorney.

“They have a common law duty to exercise ordinary care for the safety of consumers,” Ammons said in an interview. “There aren’t regulations on everything.”

With assistance from Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit

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