In a rare “good news day” for the Japanese auto giant, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that according to early tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the majority of unintended acceleration incidents can be attributed not to electronic or mechanical problems, but to driver error. On first glance, this is a major coup for Toyota, which faces hundreds of lawsuits claiming that vehicle accidents and deaths resulted from electronic problems the company could have avoided.
The report led a cohort of anti-trial lawyer writers to bask in the “told-you-so” moment. One Toyota supporter, Walter Olsen, a Cato Institute fellow who runs the popular blog Overlawyered, asked at Cato’s blog “can we now look forward to the stream of apologetic stories from major news organizations that bought into theories about mysterious electronic defects in the cars?”
Reading today’s news stories a little closer, though, observers should be careful to pronounce all Toyota litigation dead on arrival. First of all, the Journal‘s story is based on information from an anonymous source. And the Associated Press reports today that Olivia Alair, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation has said the agency has “drawn no conclusions and released no data. We will follow the facts and inform the public when our investigation comes to an end.”
Tab Turner, an Arkansas-based attorney representing plaintiffs against Toyota, emphasized the unreliability of the black box tests in an interview with the Journal. “Toyota has always taken the position that the electronic data recorder system is not reliable,” he said. A Toyota spokesman confirmed that the black box technology “wasn’t designed to tell us exactly what happened in an accident. It was designed to tell us whether our systems were operating properly.”
Olsen et. al. are correct that to a troubling extent, we have become an overlawyered society. And if the media hullabaloo surrounding the unintended acceleration lawsuits led to false claims against Toyota, those errors should be corrected. But so far, the Wall Street Journal story, based on the early data from anonymous sources, should not be taken as proof that the entire case against Toyota is exaggerated.
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