Investigation labels Toyota legal tactics evasive, deceptive

posted on:
April 12, 2010

author:
KURT NILAND

An Associated Press investigation has uncovered numerous examples that Toyota has relied on highly evasive, deceptive, and unethical legal tactics when defending itself against a spectrum of claims in court. The AP investigation involved an examination of lawsuits filed against Toyota throughout in the country in the past decade.

The AP reviewed dozens of lawsuits that involve a range of allegations. The records show that in addition to sudden acceleration claims, Toyota has been sued for vehicle rollovers and poor roof strength, defective air bags, faulty transmissions and braking problems.

Many of the verdicts that favored Toyota in the past were likely made on the basis of false or concealed information, the AP report found. Had Toyota played by court rules, the outcome of several trials could have been different.

According to the AP report, Toyota “has hidden the existence of tests that would be harmful to its legal position and claimed key material was difficult to get at its headquarters in Japan. It has withheld potentially damaging documents and refused to release data stored electronically in its vehicles.”

Beasley Allen attorney Graham Esdale, who represents the family of a woman killed in a sudden-acceleration crash, told the AP that Toyota uses its geographical advantage to obscure evidence.

“They’ve used the Pacific Ocean as a great defense to producing documents,” Esdale told the AP. “If Ford or General Motors tells you something and you don’t believe that it’s right, you can get a court order to go get access to the documents instead of relying on them. We can just go there and start poring through documents. We don’t have that with the Japanese manufacturers,” Esdale said.

The report provides a number of specific examples, including one case in which Robert Elmes, 76, claims the electronic throttle controls caused his 2002 Camry to surge forward suddenly. The 2006 crash landed Elmes in the hospital for well over a month. Since 2008, his attorney has tried repeatedly to obtain Toyota documents concerning the car’s electronic controls, but without success.

Elmes filed his lawsuit more than a year before Toyota’s sudden acceleration recalls were launched and the electronic throttle controls fell into the spotlight as the likely culprit.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has linked 52 deaths to Toyota’s sudden acceleration defects. Toyota currently faces nearly 100 wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits in federal court, filed by plaintiffs who blame sudden, unintentional acceleration for their devastating crashes.

Another 130 potential class-action suits have been filed by drivers who say Toyota’s recent sudden acceleration recalls caused a steep decline in the value of their Toyota vehicles.

It’s uncertain what legal strategies Toyota will employ in defending itself against customers and their families who have been injured or killed in sudden-acceleration crashes, but the company’s handling of complaints and its persistent denial that electronics aren’t responsible indicate it isn’t straying from the course that has worked well in the past. 

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