'I want accountability': Jane Newhook's daughters allege faulty airbag inflator killed their mother
A Newfoundland family grieving the loss of their elderly mother says the woman's death was the result of a tragic combination of impaired driving and a faulty airbag system in her car.
Jane Newhook, 83, was travelling from her home in Norman's Cove-Long Cove on the evening of July 8, 2016 when her 2009 Hyundai Elantra collided with a vehicle in the neighbouring Trinity Bay community of Thornlea.
The widow and mother of seven died at the scene.
Newhook's family has launched a lawsuit alleging she should have survived the collision and that she was, in fact, killed by metal shrapnel sprayed inside her car after the airbag inflator canister blew apart.
"I'm shattered. I'm angry. I want accountability," Melissa Newhook, Jane's daughter, said Thursday.
The manufacturer of the airbag system, U.S.-based ARC Automotive Inc., Hyundai, and admitted drunk driver George Malcolm Whalen are named in the suit.
ARC Automotive issued a statement Wednesday saying it is fully co-operating with Transport Canada, and that it "will follow the appropriate path and comment on the claim only through the court process."
ARC's St. John's-based lawyer David Eaton said the company will file its defence to the claim "in due course."
Hyundai issued a statement saying it will not be commenting on ongoing legal matters.
Whalen, 67, has pleaded guilty to impaired driving causing death, with a sentencing hearing scheduled for Monday. Whalen was uninsured.
'Penetrating neck injury'
The family is seeking an undisclosed amount of compensation, including punitive damages against ARC and Hyundai.
In to a statement of claim filed in Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador last month, an autopsy determined Newhook's death was caused by a "penetrating neck injury secondary to motor vehicle accident."
Transport Canada confirmed less than a month after the tragedy that it was investigating the first-ever case in Canada of a death caused by a ruptured driver side airbag inflator, describing the collision as low-speed and "survivable."
"She didn't deserve to die an ugly death," Newhook's daughter said. "She was too gentle for that."
No recall ordered
Transport Canada issued a statement this week, saying it's working closely with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, ARC Automotive and others — and that its investigation into why the inflator exploded is ongoing.
So far, the investigation has focused on examining records of testing, and studying crashed vehicles.
An inflator test program is also underway in Canada and Transport Canada says "no other failures have been identified and no ruptures occurred in the test program."
"Should the department find anything that would put public safety at risk, Transport Canada will take appropriate action," the statement read.
Older model cars under scrutiny
The lawsuit, meanwhile, alleges ARC Automotive was negligent by failing to ensure a safe product was installed in Newhook's car, and that the company knew of previous problems with its airbag inflators.
"A recall potentially could have prevented my mother's death," Newhook said. "In their ivory tower they think they did the risk calculation and my mom's death was an acceptable amount of risk."
ARC inflators first came under the microscope in July 2015 after an Ohio woman was seriously hurt when her Chrysler van crashed and the inflator exploded. A second incident involving someone in a 2004 Kia Optima was also reported.
In both cases, the inflators were made at the company's factory in Knoxville, according to the safety administration.
The inflator in Jane Newhook's car, however, was made in China.
Older model cars manufactured by General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai and Kia are being scrutinized in the probe, though it has not been determined how many inflators, if any, are defective.
Not related to earlier recall
Newhook's death and the earlier injuries have raised more questions about the safety of airbags, which are designed to inflate automatically upon impact and protect people in crashes.
They rely on a small explosion to force a gas into a nylon bag embedded in the steering wheel and other locations throughout the vehicle.
One of the theories is that a manufacturing problem may cause a vent to become blocked in the ARC inflators, and with no place for the gas to escape, the metal inflator canister can explode.
The investigation is not related to the recall of 69 million inflators in the U.S. made by a Japanese company called Takata Corp.
Takata inflators have been blamed for about a dozen deaths and hundreds of injuries worldwide.
"When I'm driving and I pull up behind an Elantra, I feel like I'm going to be sick," said daughter Karen Coish. "I want to get out of the car and say, 'Hey, are you aware of this … this issue with the airbags?"