The Associated Press reported in mid-April that Toyota has routinely engaged in questionable, evasive and deceptive legal tactics when sued even before the current sudden acceleration recall. Their investigation has found that in many cases, and not just the recent sudden acceleration problem, Toyota has ignored court orders to turn over documents. Aside from also denying the existence of documents demanded, they have gone as far as destroying evidence that would be detrimental to their defense in court. Toyota has also refused to release data stored electronically in its vehicles.
AP has found evidence in reviewing lawsuits filed over the last ten years that have involved allegations of vehicle rollovers, faulty air bag deployments, defective transmissions, bad brakes and, recently, crashes blamed on sudden acceleration.
For example, in a Colorado product liability lawsuit filed by a man whose young daughter was killed in a 4Runner rollover crash, Toyota withheld documents about internal roof strength tests despite a federal judge’s order that such information be produced, according to court records. The attorneys for Jon Kurylowicz now say such documents might have changed the outcome of the case, which ended in a 2005 jury verdict for Toyota.
In example after example, it was found that Toyota routinely hide the truth of its own test results and data. “They’ve used the Pacific Ocean as a great defense to producing documents,” said Graham Esdale, a lawyer in Montgomery, Ala., who has sued Toyota. “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.”
Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda, (and other top bosses) had been on Capitol Hill February 24 for an awkward session filled with mutual misunderstandings, muttered consultations, and lengthy translations. The Japanese failed to give the committee much detail, and left some Congressmen and women frustrated and incredulous.
Southern California prosecutors filed the first U.S. consumer protection lawsuit against Toyota Motor Corp on March 12, claiming it had engaged in “fraud” by hiding evidence of dangerous vehicle defects. Toyota Motor Corp. was sued February 8 in Los Angeles federal court for failing to disclose to investors that there was a major design defect in the automaker’s acceleration systems.
A suit filed in U.S. District Court August 31 in Los Angeles charges Toyota with illegally hiding evidence from plaintiffs in cases stemming from highway deaths and injuries across the U.S. These charges were made by former Toyota attorney Dimitrios P. Biller, who in a separate racketeering case accused his former employer of concealing and destroying evidence that should have been provided to plaintiffs. Biller, a managing counsel for Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., in Torrance, California, from 2003 to 2007, claimed in his lawsuit that he repeatedly complained to supervisors that the company was illegally withholding evidence.
The complaint charges that in a pair of lawsuits in Colorado and Texas, Toyota failed to fully disclose electronic data (such as e-mails) in defiance of court orders to do so. It states that when Biller learned of the company’s failure to produce design and test data from an engineering subsidiary, he attempted to collect and preserve the information.
Despite these efforts, the engineering unit “was allowed to destroy relevant information and documents that should have been produced in, approximately, over 300 rollover accidents involving roof crush issues,” the lawsuit claims.
In early April a panel of federal judges decided to consolidate the sudden acceleration-related cases before U.S. District Judge James Selna in Orange County, Southern California. Selna will handle pretrial matters in all the cases, including decisions on what material and documents Toyota will be required to produce as evidence.
As additional cases are filed in the future over problems with Toyota vehicle gas pedals, the lawsuits will be transferred to the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. If the cases do not settle or otherwise resolve during pretrial litigation, they will be returned to the district where they were filed for individual trials.
How Toyota handled past lawsuits could indicate how it will deal with this current reputation situation, though the public concern and knowledge is much more acute than in the past.