The pendulum of public opinion about Toyota continues to swing. Last month, the mainstream media ran with early information that unintended acceleration accidents may have been the result of driver error, rather than electronics as was originally thought. And in an apparent attempt at damage control, the Japanese auto giant announced last week that it would recall 1.5 million vehicles (bringing the total to about 10 million worldwide). Most recently, Toyota plaintiffs have launched new allegations that Toyota actually “covered up” accelerator problems.
More specifically, the amended complaint accuses Toyota of investigating unintended acceleration incidents, and in two cases making the vehicle owners sign confidentiality agreements and even agree not to sue the company. “To me, that is about as egregious behavior as you can have for a car manufacturer,” said Steve Berman, the attorney best known for his role litigating the ExxonValdez disaster, who filed the complaint. “Rather than cover it up they should be disclosing it.”
And Toyota isn’t faring any better on the PR front. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog highlights this exchange:
“On Aug. 11, 2007, my family experienced a head-on collision. . . . My husband was driving and died at the scene. The investigation never found any reason for the cause of the accident,” says one caller about a 2007 incident involving a Toyota Sienna. “The autopsy for my husband came back negative for any medical condition concern. Please investigate our accident report and be sure the safety and reliability of Siennas is sound.”
“Toyota looks forward to defending against the allegations made in the plaintiffs’ consolidated complaint,” Toyota spokesman Steven Curtis said in an email. “Importantly, to date, plaintiffs have not cited a specific cause that would support their claim of a defect in Toyota’s Electronic Throttle Control System, and no credible scientific theory or proof has been advanced to support this allegation. Toyota firmly believes that the system is completely safe.”
Despite suggestions that many of the claims against Toyota are “me-too” lawsuits, new allegations continue to arise suggesting that Toyota was irresponsible in its response to faulty vehicles. In addition to paying a record $16.4 million to the Department of Transportation, the company faces more than 100 plaintiff lawsuits, and Allstate Insurance Company has sued Toyota for $3 million related to nearly 300 insurance claims.
I hope the victims of Toyota accidents get their day in court, rather than being stifled by the notion that driver error caused each instance of unintended acceleration.
Photo credit: LaurenV