The mainstream media’s big story of the day is Toyota’s “sticky pedal” strategy in the courtrooms across the land. And it has little or nothing to do with actual gas pedals, and everything to do with stalling in producing the court ordered company documents that could show known deficiencies in product design and safety. AP analyzed lawsuits covering a range of complaints, and in response to requests for company documents, Toyota has consistently claimed it does not have them, or simply ignored court orders to produce the documents. The pattern being uncovered supports the claims made by Dimitros Biller, a former Toyota attorney who sued (and settled) with Toyota after contending that the company deliberately withheld evidence in older rollover cases.
A typical and fairly recent example from 2005:
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. “Mr. Kurylowicz went to trial without having been given all the relevant evidence and all the evidence the court ordered Toyota to produce,” attorney Stuart Ollanik wrote in a new federal lawsuit accusing Toyota of fraud in the earlier case. “The Kurylowicz trial was not a fair trial.”
It’s not that the other automotive manufacturers all roll over in court exactly, but Toyota’s reputation among the legal profession is solidly established. “Automobile manufacturers, in my practice, have been the toughest to deal with when it comes to sharing information, but Toyota has no peer,” said attorney Ernest Cannon, who represented the family of 35-year-old Lisa Evans, who died in 2002 in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land.
AP’s review of cases turns up numerous and repeated actions by Toyota that can best be described as evasive, and deceptive. Objecting to turning over documents is one thing; but claiming that the documents don’t exist is another.
Toyota hid the existence of its roof strength tests in numerous cases. A new potential class-action lawsuit filed in California on behalf of two women left paralyzed by separate Toyota rollover crashes contends that recently uncovered company documents contradict sworn testimony by Toyota officials that the company had no written standard for how far vehicle roofs could be crushed. The long-hidden documents indicate Toyota did have such a standard: roofs could come no closer than a half-millimeter from test dummies’ heads in a rollover crash.
“This type of conduct by the Toyota defendants is illegal, immoral and unprofessional,” said attorney E. Todd Tracy in a similar recent lawsuit accusing Toyota of fraud in older cases. “The Toyota defendants’ cloak and dagger games must be terminated.”
One of the key advantages Toyota uses is the Pacific Ocean: company headquarters in Japan are distant, remote and not readily accessible through legal actions:
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.”