Toyota Questioned in L.A. Times Story

Posted: Dec 24, 2009 10:05 a.m.

A story in the Los Angeles Times may put some coal in Toyota's stocking.

The Times reports, "A peerless reputation for quality and safety has helped Toyota become the world's largest automaker. But even as its sales have soared, the company has delayed recalls, kept a tight lid on disclosure of potential problems and attempted to blame human error in cases where owners claimed vehicle defects."

Kicking Tires writes, "It turns out the recent recall of millions of vehicles over defective floormats is just the most recent issue that has brought a lot of attention to the company’s record." According to the Times, since 2001 unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles has caused 19 deaths -- "more deaths from that problem than all other automakers combined."

Toyota's handling of the recent recall came under fire from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. The Times reports that after Toyota announced the recall, "it insisted publicly that no defect existed. That drew a rare public rebuke from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which chastised the automaker for making 'inaccurate and misleading statements.'"

The Times unearthed other reports of Toyota's handling of safety issues, including knowing of a "dangerous steering defect" in the 4Runner SUV before issuing a recall in Japan in 2004 and one in the U.S. in 2005, paying cash settlements to owners who have been in accidents as a result of unintended acceleration, and that Toyota has known about the unintended acceleration issue for years. The Times writes, "Although the sudden acceleration issue erupted publicly only in recent months, it has been festering for nearly a decade. A computerized search of NHTSA records by The Times has found Toyota issued eight previous recalls related to unintended acceleration since 2000, more than any other automaker." Perhaps most damaging, the Times says a former lawyer for Toyota who handles safety litigation has sued the company, alleging a "conspiracy" to conceal evidence that may damage the automaker.

Toyota strongly denies that it has done anything improper. "In a written statement to The Times, Toyota said that it strove to keep government officials and consumers informed about potential safety problems with its vehicles, which it says are tested to meet or exceed federal standards," writes the Times.

The former attorney's claims against Toyota have led to several lawsuits, but so far Toyota is prevailing. In a separate Los Angeles Times story, the paper reports, "In a victory for Toyota Motor Corp., an attorney has dropped a lawsuit seeking to reopen 17 rollover cases against the automaker based on claims by a former Toyota attorney that the company had hidden key evidence." Toyota gave the attorney, E. Todd Tracy, access to their records in the case, "including company e-mails, letters sent to government officials and internal testing documents. After the review, Tracy said, he had no option but to drop the suits. 'I cannot prove my case' based on the documents, he said."

Business Week quotes Tracy as saying, "I did not see any type of concealment, destruction or pattern of discovery abuse that affected my cases that I had re-opened," and reports "Mike Michaels, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales USA in Torrance, said today in a phone interview there had been no settlement with the plaintiffs and that the company was pleased with the dismissal."

If you're interested in this issue, be sure to read the L.A. Times report on Toyota's safety and recall record. While there are some worrisome stories there, keep in mind that some of the claims are, as Kicking Tires writes, brought by "attorneys looking for large payouts." We'll stay on top of the story to bring you the latest information.

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