Big-Rig Explosion in Quemado, Texas and the Law

Michael GrossmanAugust 31, 2016 9 minutes

If you pay attention to the news at all, or you have an interest in feeling safe in your own car, you've probably heard the name "Takata" coming up occasionally over the past year or two. A truck accident and explosion this past week in Quemado, Texas, which killed 69-year-old Lucila Robles, has thrust Takata back into an unwanted spotlight.

When things are going right for a company that supplies the component parts of an end-product, you really don't hear its name very often. Takata doesn't currently enjoy the anonymity of a job well done; its name hit the news when reports started rolling in to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) about injuries sustained from airbag deployment in cars with Takata safety equipment.

When an airbag is functioning properly, its inflator module blasts propellant gas into the balloon of the airbag, causing it to rapidly inflate and intercept motorists before they collide with the steering wheel or dashboard. However, Takata's current inflator assembly is filled with cheap-but-unstable ammonium nitrate gas, which if inappropriately triggered can cause its whole container to explode. This essentially means there could be a fragmentation grenade lurking in an affected motorist's steering wheel.

The inherent hazards of that propellant were recently displayed on a large scale when a truck hauling Takata parts ran off the road and exploded in southern Texas.

What Happened in Quemado, Texas?

Reports indicate that the semi-truck was carrying a flatbed trailer loaded with airbag inflators and propellant toward a Takata holding facility in Eagle Pass, TX. The southbound truck, driven by 20-year-old Mario Alberto Rodriguez, allegedly ran off the side of U.S. Highway 277 near its intersection with FM 1666, in the town of Quemado on the Mexican border. As it left the road, it also caught on fire, exploding as it came in contact with a house in the sparsely-populated area.

Takata truck explosion site
Drone footage captured at the explosion scene.

The house's lone occupant, 69-year-old Lucila Robles, was killed in the blast. While she was initially reported missing, her remains were found on-site by authorities after a two-day search.

Rodriguez and his passenger were able to escape the truck's cab before the explosion, but were injured in the blast. A passing motorist and his rider in a Toyota SUV were also injured in the explosion. All four parties were taken to a hospital in Eagle Pass, then later transferred to San Antonio.

The explosion itself was enormous. Pieces of the truck were reportedly found over a mile from the central blast site, and ten surrounding homes were damaged. Highway 277 was shut down for over 30 hours to repair the crater left by the incident.

Texas DPS is investigating, but at this time officials say the fire and explosion were not caused by a collision. They will be analyzing "Every possible factor or factors -- including the safety compliance of the motor carrier, the handling of the cargo by the shipper, its packaging, how the truck was placarded, as well as the truck's routing."

Who Made the Products?

Takata is an auto manufacturing concern headquartered in Japan. They specialize primarily in safety devices, including seat belts and airbags, which they have been making for decades.

The affected goods were transported by a third-party trucking on the last leg of a 2,000 mile journey, from a propellant factory in Washington State to their final destination at an assembly factory in Mexico.

Takata has been making airbag components since the early 80's, and exporting them to the rest of the world since 1987. Their safety products are present in something like 75% of consumer vehicles from 14 different auto manufacturers. Internal documents suggest that in the mid-90's, Takata switched from an expensive-but-stable inflating agent called tetrazole (marketed as Envirosure) to the much-cheaper ammonium nitrate. Despite protests from their engineers and researchers, the company rolled full-steam ahead, escalating production to meet increasing demand.

Today they are experiencing some of the fallout from that decision. A blizzard of mail has been issued to consumers urging them to seek replacement airbag inflators in their vehicles, due to the potential hazards of their currently-installed systems.

Official Response from Takata About the Accident

The company released an official statement about the Quemado explosion:

"A truck carrying airbag inflators and propellant that was being operated by a subcontractor to Takata was involved in an accident. According to preliminary reports, the accident caused a fire, which led to an explosion. Takata immediately deployed personnel to the site and has been working closely with the subcontractor and the appropriate authorities to investigate this incident. Takata has strict safety procedures relating to the transportation of its products that meet or exceed all regulatory requirements. Our thoughts are with the family of the woman who died as a result of this accident, and with the four people injured, who were immediately transported to San Antonio for medical treatment."

That's a perfectly reasonable statement to issue to the press, and I don't doubt the sincerity of the person who delivered it, but viewed in the light of Takata's troubled history, I can't help but feel a bit cynical. Takata is embroiled in a large tangle of litigation because of the dangers posed by its airbag units. It was recently slapped with a $200 million fine by the NHTSA, it faces a number of civil suits from injured motorists and even some families of fatally-injured drivers, and auto-makers are absolutely foaming at the mouth because of their falling auto sales. While we haven't seen too many cases of a truckload of these things blowing up en masse, by now we're no strangers to the idea that Takata inflators can explode.

Considering that, when I see a Takata spokesperson say "...has been working closely with the subcontractor," I read it as "...has been rehearsing the version of events we want on record." I see "Our thoughts are with the family," and I mentally I hear "...because our attorneys are strategizing about how to blame the trucker and/or minimize our liability."

How Dangerous Were the Goods Being Transported?

Takata is responsible for the largest automotive recall in history. Over 100 million vehicles worldwide may have faulty elements that need replacing, and it's proving extremely difficult to reach all the affected motorists. Much of this initiative is undertaken by the vehicle manufacturers themselves, rather than Takata; Honda has gone as far as hiring private detectives to track down their cars' buyers.

Now more than ever seems like the time that Takata should handle every single aspect of their airbag construction with kid gloves. If any confidence is to be restored in the company's product safety, they cannot afford to be involved in lethal micro-Armageddons around the country.

One of the key difficulties the company faces is its continued use of ammonium nitrate for the propellant that inflates an airbag. It's cheap and it's plentiful, and it does work as a propellant gas, but it's highly unstable for its intended purpose.

At the heart of the recalls is that the ammonium nitrate gas can gradually deteriorate, especially in humid climates. In the event of an airbag deployment, the propellent can cause excess pressure in the inflater module; this leads to ruptured components in the module, which potentially become lethal shrapnel blasted at high speeds into the driver and/or passengers.

I likened it earlier to a fragmentation grenade, but a better analogy might be a claymore mine--a shaped charge designed to explode outward and propel a cloud of shrapnel in a specific direction. The pieces of the gas-containing canister can be lethal when ejected at high speeds. Internal documents at Takata suggest there have been 13 known fatalities and over 100 documented injuries along these lines--most of which were covered up by the company for as long as possible so they wouldn't hurt sales. What the world witnessed on August 22nd was a larger-scale version of the problem they already knew about.

To magnify Monday's event to an even larger scale, recall that another truck loaded with ammonium nitrate was the main catalyst of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. With nine barrels full of ammonium nitrate and nitromethane and another four filled with fertilizer mixed with diesel fuel, Timothy McVeigh drove into the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The resultant explosion was felt for 16 blocks, decimating 324 buildings. It caused 168 deaths and seriously injured hundreds more.

Until authorities complete their investigation of Monday's incident, we can't authoritatively talk about which party may be liable for this explosion. Maybe the truck driver nodded off or was distracted; maybe the truck malfunctioned. Regardless of how it ended up near the house, though, you can bet ammonium nitrate made up the bulk of the blast itself--which means that Takata's choice to use that in their products should be considered as a causal factor.

The Quemado, TX Semi-Truck Explosion and the Law

Until the official results of the investigation are announced, nobody is going to know specifically what happened. When faced with a situation like this, though, we at the firm usually put together some working theories based on the available data.

  • Why did the truck leave the road? This is a key point to investigate. Right now the Department of Public Safety hasn't mentioned any other involved vehicles--just that the truck left the roadway in Quemado.
    Trucking companies have a long history of inventing a "phantom car" that supposedly triggered the event. It's pretty easy to claim an oncoming vehicle crossed over the center line, caused the truck to run off the road, and then kept driving with stopping to render aid, vanishing over the horizon.
    With another motorist supposedly causing the accident and fleeing the scene, and with virtually no way to disprove the story, there's a good chance the company's story will be accepted by investigators. At that point, the focus shifts away from company liability and onto finding the reckless driver.

  • What actually caused the damages? This seems to have a pretty clear answer: the explosion itself was responsible for one fatality and four injuries. There wasn't a crash between the truck and the house, so the proximal cause of the damages would seem to be the truck's combustion and subsequent detonation.
  • What caused the explosion? As the truck left the road, it caught fire. Without a vehicular collision to trigger this event, there are two possible culprits: either the truck itself sustained some form of mechanical or engine failure, or the propellant cartridges on the flatbed somehow managed to create friction great enough to start a fire. The investigation will hopefully turn up evidence to clarify where the initial sparks came from.
    Once the truck was on fire, the flames would have had to reach one of two places on the truck to trigger the explosion: the diesel fuel tank or the main load of ammonium nitrate on the flatbed.
    Commercial trucks can and do catch fire on occasion, but they run on diesel fuel in part because it is more difficult to combust than regular gasoline. With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves--which is more likely? That the fire ignited fuel that's designed to withstand it, or that it set off what amounted to a large fertilizer bomb carried on the flatbed?

  • Who is responsible for the damages? Given what we've described so far, two parties could be responsible. If the fire originated in the truck, that would suggest a failure on the part of the trucking subcontractor. Unless it can be proven as a sudden and unforeseeable issue, it would likely mean their vehicle was not in a proper state of repair--especially for long-haul operation.
    If however the fire began in the carried load of airbag propellant cartridges, Takata might be liable for not properly packaging and securing their hazardous material for transportation. Significant care should go into the preparation of explosive materials, including all reasonable precautions to keep them from shifting or colliding with one another during the trip. If this caution was not practiced, Takata may be found responsible for the explosion.

  • What does this mean for the injured? Whichever party is found liable, there is definitely a possibility of compensation.
    We know of at least five claimants in this situation who deserve recompense: the estate of Lucila Robles, the truck driver Mario Rodriguez and his passenger, and the two occupants of the Toyota SUV that were injured in the blast. Whomever is responsible for their damages should do everything they can to make the affected parties whole.

    • Trucking companies, particularly those operating interstate, are required to carry significant insurance policies for their drivers. Termed "financial responsibility" in the legal world, truckers carrying conventional inert materials (food, lumber, etc.) are required by federal law to carry at least $750,000 worth of insurance.
      Because the haul in question was volatile and explosive in nature, however, it falls under the category of hazardous materials, or hazmat. In such instances, federal law requires insurance of at least $1 million.
      The state of Texas requires an additional $250,000 worth of coverage for interstate transportation of hazardous goods. This means that the trucking subcontractor who owned that vehicle and employed its driver should be insured for a minimum of $1.25 million, to which the injured parties would be entitled as victims of an incident caused by the company.

  • If Takata is found to be liable for negligence in the preparation and packaging of their volatile airbag cartridges, there will likely be grounds to pursue a claim against them as well.
    While they are not federally mandated to carry specific insurance amounts as trucking companies do, they have considerable corporate assets. Their history was profitable, and was heavily bolstered by their deliberate sale of hazardous airbag units since 2001, when they switched to the ammonium nitrate propellant. While their profits have gone into a nosedive from recent scandals and recalls, it seems only fair if they are deemed to be at fault that they share some of the prior windfall from their dangerous venture with the people who suffered its effects.
  • Whatever the investigation turns up, someone has to be at fault here--unless lightning touched down from the sky and lit that fire, the chances that it was a spontaneous act of God are slim to none. When that liability is established, I hope they are prepared to do what is right, because justice will be done.

    However, in the 27 years of this firm's existence, we have seen the liable party do the right thing, without the threat of litigation, a grand total of one time. For whatever reason, companies and bad criminals both think that they can thwart the law by blaming the other party. After all, if no one takes responsibility, then every gets of scot-free right?

    I would expect some version of this tried and true tactic to take place in the aftermath of this incident. However, just like the criminals who try and blame each other for a crime, the law is not so easily gamed. While it may be a long and difficult process, with the proper assistance, I suspect such games will fail in this situation and justice will be done.