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Toyota found to keep tight lid on potential safety problems

A Times investigation shows the world's largest automaker has delayed recalls and attempted to blame human error in cases where owners claimed vehicle defects.

December 23, 2009|By Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian
  • During a routine test on its Sienna minivan in April 2003, Toyota engineers discovered that a plastic panel could come loose and cause the gas pedal to stick, potentially making the vehicle accelerate out of control. The automaker redesigned the part and by that June every 2004 model year Sienna off the assembly line came with the new panel.
During a routine test on its Sienna minivan in April 2003, Toyota engineers… (Toyota )

During a routine test on its Sienna minivan in April 2003, Toyota Motor Corp. engineers discovered that a plastic panel could come loose and cause the gas pedal to stick, potentially making the vehicle accelerate out of control.

The automaker redesigned the part and by that June every 2004 model year Sienna off the assembly line came with the new panel. Toyota did not notify tens of thousands of people who had already bought vans with the old panel, however.

It wasn't until U.S. safety officials opened an investigation last year that Toyota acknowledged in a letter to regulators that the part could come loose and "lead to unwanted or sudden acceleration."

In January, nearly six years after discovering the potential hazard, the automaker recalled 26,501 vans made with the old panel.

In a statement to The Times, Toyota said that there was no defect in the Sienna and that "a safety recall was not deemed necessary" when it discovered the problem in 2003. The company called the replacement part "an additional safety measure."

A peerless reputation for quality and safety has helped Toyota become the world's largest automaker. But even as its sales have soared, the company has delayed recalls, kept a tight lid on disclosure of potential problems and attempted to blame human error in cases where owners claimed vehicle defects.

The automaker's handling of safety issues has come under scrutiny in recent months because of incidents of sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles, which The Times has reported were involved in accidents causing 19 fatalities since 2001, more deaths from that problem than all other automakers combined.

After Toyota this fall announced its biggest recall to address the sudden-acceleration problem, it insisted publicly that no defect existed. That drew a rare public rebuke from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which chastised the automaker for making "inaccurate and misleading statements."

In the wake of Toyota's announcement of the massive recall, The Times examined some of the ways the automaker has dealt with safety problems in recent years and found that:

* The automaker knew of a dangerous steering defect in vehicles including the 4Runner sport utility vehicle for years before issuing a recall in Japan in 2004. But it told regulators no recall was necessary in the U.S., despite having received dozens of complaints from drivers. Toyota said a subsequent investigation led it to order a U.S. recall in 2005.

* Toyota has paid cash settlements to people who say their vehicles have raced out of control, sometimes causing serious accidents, according to consumers and their attorneys. Other motorists who complained of acceleration problems with their vehicles have received buybacks under lemon laws.

* Although the sudden acceleration issue erupted publicly only in recent months, it has been festering for nearly a decade. A computerized search of NHTSA records by The Times has found Toyota issued eight previous recalls related to unintended acceleration since 2000, more than any other automaker.

* A former Toyota lawyer who handled safety litigation has sued the automaker, accusing it of engaging in a "calculated conspiracy to prevent the disclosure of damaging evidence" as part of a scheme to "prevent evidence of its vehicles' structural shortcomings from becoming known" to plaintiffs lawyers, courts, NHTSA and the public.

As a result, plaintiffs attorneys are considering reopening dozens of product-liability suits against the automaker.

Toyota has called the allegations of the attorney, Dimitrios Biller, "both misleading and inaccurate" and noted that he is also suing another former employer. The company said it had "acted appropriately in product liability cases and in all reporting to federal safety regulators."

In a written statement to The Times, Toyota said that it strove to keep government officials and consumers informed about potential safety problems with its vehicles, which it says are tested to meet or exceed federal standards.

"Toyota has absolutely not minimized public awareness of any defect or issue with respect to its vehicles," the company said.

Currently, Toyota is a defendant in at least 10 lawsuits alleging unintended acceleration that caused five fatalities and four injuries. Two of those suits are seeking class-action status.

But few, if any, sudden-acceleration cases ever make it to trial, according to attorneys who handle such cases.

After a 2007 crash of a Camry that accelerated out of control for 20 miles before killing the driver of another car in San Jose, Toyota was sued by members of the victim's family. Their attorney, Louis Franecke, said the automaker "didn't want to go to trial," and paid them a seven-figure sum in exchange for dropping the case and signing a non-disclosure form.

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