Connecticut Federal District Court Judge Victor Bolden has approved a roughly $34 to $40 million settlement between Toyota and class action plaintiffs who assert that safety issues with the rear power sliding doors of the car maker’s Sienna minivans place passengers at risk of injury or worse. Beasley Allen Principal attorney W. Daniel “Dee” Miles, III, head of the firm’s Consumer Fraud Section, served as co-lead counsel along with Adam Levitt of DiCello, Levitt & Gutzler of Chicago, and Demet Basar of Wolf Haldenstein of New York. Beasley Allen lawyers H. Clay Barnett, III, Leslie Pescia, and Chris D. Baldwin led the discovery efforts on the case that proved to be a key factor in the court-approved settlement.
“Toyota had some serious safety issues with its Sienna minivan sliding doors not properly latching due to about five different potential problems we identified,” Miles said.“ Fortunately for the class members, Toyota was willing to listen and work with our experts to find a solution to all identifiable safety issues and cure them. This settlement provides that remedy,” said Miles.
The safety issues involve the latches, hinges, cables, and motor circuitry that control movement, latching, and locking of the power sliding doors. The problem can cause the sliding doors to grind and pop during operation, spontaneously open without any input from the occupants, stall out and freeze during operation, and give the appearance of being latched when they are in fact not – a dangerous status not evident to the occupants.
Sienna owners and lessees have filed hundreds of complaints with the National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA) and with Toyota dealerships regarding door malfunction. In response, Toyota issued three Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) from May 2011 forward and instituted a national Safety Recall in November 2016. The TSBs and Safety Recall G04 informed auto dealers of the door failures, but only offered a partial (electrical) solution. For instance, despite receiving G04 Recall repairs, many Siennas continued to suffer (mechanical) door malfunctions as the recall failed to offer a complete fix.
One of the firm’s clients in the class action from Woodstock, Alabama, is a mother and was driving with her two children, ages 11 and 15 when the van’s left rear power sliding door opened spontaneously and independently. She described the situation as “one of the scariest things” she’s experienced. It frightened her so much that she stopped driving the van altogether. After receiving the G04 Recall repair, she resumed use of the van and soon after experienced continued unpredictable sliding door operation.
During litigation, attorneys discovered what initially appeared to be a highly complex computer-related breakdown was, in fact rather basic mechanical weakness. Evidence revealed that the door failures were caused mainly by corrosion and wear due to exposure to contaminants such as road salt, salty coastal air, water, and road grit.
The settlement incorporates the G04 Recall remedy yet goes far beyond it, providing two distinct types of relief.
- First, Toyota will create a Customer Confidence Program for Class Members that offers free dealership inspection of their Siennas’ sliding doors and, on an as-needed basis: replacement of latches, locks, hinges, cable sub-assemblies, and fuel door assemblies. These replacement parts and the G04 Recall efforts are warranted for 10 years from the date of first use, and the Customer Confidence program travels with the car, meaning subsequent owners are also protected.
- Second, the settlement offers Class Members reimbursement for prior out-of-pocket repair costs associated with the failed components. Class Members whose vehicles’ power sliding doors require repair will receive a complimentary loaner vehicle.
The firm, along with co-counsel, filed a class action lawsuit in June 2017, referred to as the Combs litigation, in U.S. District Court for the District of California Western Division on behalf of owners and lessees of 2011-2017 Toyota Sienna minivans. Later that month, a similar class action, referred to as the Simerlein litigation, was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. For months, the two cases progressed independently until Beasley Allen attorneys and co-counsel representing the Combs plaintiffs joined with counsel for the Simerlein plaintiffs. This coordinated effort produced a jointly proposed settlement in December 2018. Following a hearing in January, Judge Bolden preliminarily approved a global settlement agreement, reached on behalf of all U.S. purchasers and lessees of an estimated 1.3 million 2011-2018 Siennas. Shortly thereafter, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips stayed the Combs action pending final approval of the Simerlein class settlement.
Commenting on the settlement itself, Miles said “the fact that this 1.3-million-member certified class action settlement was approved without a single objection is a testament to the quality of the remedies it provides as well as its reach to so many consumers.”