Washington: US justice authorities have opened a criminal investigation of Japanese auto parts maker Takata over its defective airbags, linked to at least five deaths, a US senator said Thursday.
"When companies put their own profits ahead of the lives of American consumers, they deserve to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law," Senator Claire McCaskill said.
"I`m pleased the US Attorney has taken swift action here to open a criminal probe," the Democrat lawmaker added.
McCaskill`s statement came as a powerful Senate committee announced a hearing into the Takata airbag scandal and media reports said the Japanese company had received a subpoena from the US attorney in New York to provide documents related to the airbag defects.
Some 16 million vehicles produced by 10 global automakers have been recalled worldwide over worries that the Takata airbags in them can explode when inflating, firing potentially deadly shrapnel into the car`s occupants.
Four deaths have been claimed in the United States related to the problem. On Thursday Honda said an exploding airbag had killed a woman in Malaysia, and it recalled an another 170,000 vehicles worldwide over the issue.
Earlier Thursday Takata rejected a high-profile report that claimed it had covered up the results of tests on the faulty airbags.
Quoting former Takata employees, the New York Times reported last week that tests were conducted by its US subsidiary a decade ago, but executives ordered the destruction of data that exposed design flaws.
But Takata said the tests were unrelated to the inflator mechanism at the center of the current probes.
"Our company did not carry out such test (on inflators) in 2004, and we absolutely did not cover-up test results, as reported in the story," it said in a statement.
"This was not a `secret` test... The story is based on an inaccurate understanding of the facts, and it defames our firm and employees."
But its arguments appeared to have little power to halt a steamrolling US probe and private lawsuits against the company.
The Senate Commerce Committee announced a hearing for next Thursday on Takata airbag case, especially the response of the company and US auto safety regulators since the airbag recalls began in 2008.
"The hearing will focus on how defective Takata airbags became installed in so many vehicles and the responses of both automakers and NHTSA to remedy the safety defect to protect consumers."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has expanded its "urgent" warning to owners of cars with affected airbags to take them to dealers to fix the problem immediately.
Affected automakers include Honda, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota.
It was not known whether officials of Takata or the NHTSA would testify at the hearing.