Bags of trouble 

When it comes to air bags, 1999 has not been a great year for the Chrysler half of DaimlerChrysler. A combination of lawsuits, government inquiries and a massive recall has hit the automaker within the past six months.

The trouble began in February when a Pennsylvania jury handed down a $58.5 million judgment against DaimlerChrysler in a class-action suit. At issue were the driver-side air bags in Chrysler LeBarons for model years 1988-90. The problem involved positioning of vents for the compressed gas used to inflate air bags. Fourteen drivers suffered hand burns when the bags deployed. But the jury awarded $730 -- the cost of replacing an air bag -- to all the approximately 75,000 Pennsylvanians who owned one of the vehicles.

The jury found the air bags contain a "defect in design" and that Chrysler committed fraud by not properly notifying owners of the potential for injury. The automaker, according to an article in the magazine Corporate Legal Times, vowed to appeal, saying the issue was "trial-lawyer greed, not a defective product."

In March, at the annual Society of Automotive Engineers conference, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revealed that a dummy the size of a small woman sustained severe neck damage from a 1997 Dodge Caravan's passenger-side air bag when the vehicle was crashed into a Honda Accord. The results were unexpected -- the test was conducted not to measure air-bag performance in the Dodge, but to gauge the impact of collisions involving larger vehicles hitting small cars.

NHTSA followed up with 11 more crash tests. In six instances, the dummies sustained severe neck damage, adding fuel to the controversy over the safety of passenger-side air bags in Chrysler minivans. DaimlerChrysler said it was the dummies and not its air bags that were defective.

Finally, at the end of May, the automaker announced it was voluntarily recalling nearly 1 million of its 1994 and 1995 model minivans because of a problem with their driver-side air bags. There have been about 35 instances in which faulty wiring caused the bags to deploy when the vans' ignition switches were turned on. The recall includes Dodge Caravans, Plymouth Voyagers and Chrysler Town & Country minivans.

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