A Honda engineer who claimed to know “the truth about Takata’s inflator recall” should be compelled to testify in the Miami multidistrict litigation alleging a plot to hide reports about defective air bags, a special master recommended.
The automaker is facing civil conspiracy claims from drivers who allege Honda and Takata worked together to conceal a defect in the inflators that caused air bags to explode. Honda turned over 2013 emails in which engineer Takeru Fukuda, who has worked for Honda in Japan for 25 years, compared himself to Edward Snowden and called himself “a witness in the dark” who could “cause a complete reversal in the auto industry” by reporting his knowledge to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The dispute over whether plaintiffs counsel could question Fukuda hinged on whether he could be considered a “managing agent” for Honda under federal court rules since he is not a manager. He works in Honda’s research and development subsidiary as an assistant chief engineer, a job title held by about 40 percent of division employees. The company said Fukuda, identified in court documents deferentially as Fukuda-san, spent most of his career working on plastic air-bag system enclosures rather than the internal inflators or their propellants.
Honda does not object to its engineer testifying. But because Fukuda did not consent to a deposition, he can’t be examined by the plaintiffs under a 1963 treaty between the U.S. and Japan unless a federal judge finds he is a managing agent.
Special master Ryan Stumphauzer, a partner at Stumphauzer & Sloman in Miami, concluded Fukuda is a managing agent not because he’s a high-level executive — he’s not — but because no one is in a better position to testify about a 1999 air bag inspection when an inflator ruptured.
Fukuda “conducted and is the only available witness to the 1999 test that resulted in the Takata inflator rupture, attended both the 1999 and 2000 meetings concerning Takata inflator ruptures, aggressively challenged Takata’s findings as to the cause of the 1999 rupture, and communicated his concerns with Takata’s findings and apparently told his colleagues at Honda about his distrust of Takata,” Stumphauzer wrote in a report filed Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno will make the final decision.
Honda has said it believes the deposition would show plaintiffs counsel misinterpreted the emails.
“Honda does not oppose our engineer’s testimony,” a company statement said. “Honda will work with him to comply with the court’s ruling. We are confident that testimony from this engineer will confirm that Honda has acted responsibly throughout its investigation and handling of the Takata airbag inflator product issue.”
Miami attorney Peter Prieto of Podhurst Orseck, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said Honda has not been helpful in the discovery process.
“Like everything with Honda, obtaining the deposition of Mr. Fukuda was a struggle and came only after weeks of litigation,” he said. “But we are pleased with the thorough analysis by Special Master Stumphauzer in his report, and we look forward to deposing Mr. Fukuda, the self-proclaimed Edward Snowden of Honda.”