FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — When Florida Highway Patrol troopers arrived at a crash scene in the Panhandle this summer, they found a 23-year-old Navy officer dead at the wheel with neck wounds that initially looked like a possible shooting.
A trooper later messaged the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that injuries were from the deployment of an air bag in the 2006 Ford Ranger pickup in the July accident in Pensacola.
Though the NHTSA is investigating and hasn’t made a final determination yet, the family of Hayden Jones Jr. says there’s ample evidence the death was caused by an exploding Takata air bag. It would be the 20th such death in the United States — and would come six years after the start of a recall of that vehicle model.
The NHTSA recall notices for the 2006 Ford Ranger underline the urgency, saying owners shouldn't drive these vehicles “unless you are going straight to a dealer to have them repaired.”
Ford says it notified the vehicle owner of the recall — even going to the owner's home to try to schedule repairs — but the Jones family says it never received any recall notice from the manufacturer and has filed a wrongful death lawsuit.
Cases like this, in which needed repairs never happen, show the system is broken, said William Wallace, safety advocate for Consumer Reports. He said the recall system is weak in part because it relies heavily on owners keeping up to date with recall notices.
Some states, such as New York, require notices of pending recalls to be given to car owners as part of annual vehicle inspections. Florida does not require any annual inspections.
Hayden Jones Sr. originally bought the vehicle in Tennessee from Dobbs Ford of Memphis, Inc., according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday against Ford, the dealership — which is now AutoNation Ford Wolfchase — and the owner and driver of the other vehicle involved in the crash.
The elder Jones now lives in Brandon, Mississippi, and the younger Jones was using the vehicle in Florida, where he was stationed in Pensacola.
Ford spokesman Said Deep told The Associated Press last month that the company had notified the owner of the recall and went to the house, but he did not confirm the address visited. Ford declined further comment after the lawsuit was filed.
Orlando-based attorney Andrew Parker Felix said that no one in the Jones family was visited by Ford representatives nor received recall notices. The Jones family declined to comment, except through Felix.
“These things are literally the stuff of nightmares,” Felix said. “It is an airbag that shoots metal at you.”
Felix's firm, Morgan & Morgan, has prosecuted more than 100 individual Takata air bag claims. The firm contends that the dealer in Tennessee “was allegedly notified of Ford’s safety recall of the 2006 Ranger at least 12 times between 2018 and 2020, but also did nothing to warn Mr. Jones about his vehicle’s deadly airbag."
Changes of address can sometimes complicate recalls, said Gabe Knight, another safety advocate for Consumer Reports.
“Moving introduces a potential break in the ability of the automaker to reach car owners,” Knight said. “Unless the owner notifies the automaker (which isn’t likely), then the automaker is dependent on the address they have on file and registration records, which can significantly lag behind moves.”
Troopers who arrived at the scene on July 7 found Jones dead of neck wounds and shrapnel in the truck's floorboards. The other driver walked away from the minor collision with no injuries, according to the accident report.
“I think we initially began our investigation as a possible homicide by gunfire because we weren’t sure,” Lt. Jason King of the Highway Patrol told news outlets at the time. The Highway Patrol, when contacted by the AP, would give no further details and referred the matter to the NHTSA.
A document posted on the NHTSA’s database said a Florida Highway Patrol trooper filed a report with the agency saying that the driver suffered fatal injuries ”due to the driver’s side air bag deployment.”
At least 28 deaths worldwide have been attributed to Takata air bags.
The company used ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion to inflate air bags in a crash. But the chemical can become more volatile over time when exposed to moisture and repeated high temperatures — particularly a problem in warmer, more humid climates. The explosion can blow apart a metal canister and hurl shrapnel through the passenger compartment.
About 67 million vehicles with Takata air bags in the United States have been subject to a recall, according to the NHTSA.
The last previous death caused by a Takata air bag occurred in a Honda in Lancaster County, South Carolina, in January 2021.
AP auto writer Tom Krisher contributed from Detroit.
Freida Frisaro, The Associated Press