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Toyota concealed evidence in rollover cases, ex-attorney alleges

In a lawsuit, lawyer says Toyota repeatedly forced him to illegally withhold information from victims of hundreds of accidents that resulted in deaths and injuries.

September 01, 2009|W.J. Hennigan

Toyota spent years concealing evidence from victims of hundreds of rollover accidents that resulted in death and injury, a former top lawyer for the automaker says.

The accusation, spelled out in a lawsuit filed in federal court, has the potential to reopen cases that Toyota Motor Corp. won or settled for two decades, legal experts said.

Dimitrios P. Biller of Pacific Palisades, a former managing counsel for Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., said in the suit that the company repeatedly forced him to illegally withhold information from opposing lawyers and made him resign in September 2007.

"We understand that these are serious allegations, but his life has been destroyed by Toyota's actions," Biller's attorney, Jeffrey Allen, said Monday. "This is the stuff of Hollywood movies."

Biller, who said the company gave him a $3.7-million severance payment, declined to comment.

Toyota released a statement calling Biller's allegations "inaccurate and misleading." In court documents, the company called him a disgruntled employee looking to retaliate for having to resign his position.

In the July 24 lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles, Biller accuses the world's largest automaker of destroying data in more than 300 accidents that proved vehicle roofs were substandard.

Also in the lawsuit, he alleges the company illegally withheld e-mails and other computer-stored information from victims' attorneys.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, said that if what Biller says is true, the financial repercussions for Toyota could be massive.

"The allegations are very serious," Ditlow said. "The bottom line is that Toyota has a mess on its hands."

Biller worked for Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales from 2003 to 2007, he said. In his position, he was involved in defending the company in cases in which sport utility vehicles and trucks were in rollover accidents.

Victims in these cases, often seriously injured or killed because of crushed roofs, contended in their lawsuits that injuries and deaths were a direct result of Toyota's weak roofs.

According to Biller's suit, Toyota repeatedly concealed information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Toyota's compliance with regulations for roof strength. The company went through a "relentless effort to prevent evidence of its vehicles' structural shortcomings from being known," the lawsuit said.

Toyota maintained that it did not act outside the law.

"Toyota takes its legal obligations seriously and works to uphold the highest professional and ethical standards," the company said in its statement.

The company moved unsuccessfully to seal the complaint from public view, saying it was filled with confidential information.

Tab Turner, a product liability attorney from Little Rock, Ark., said that if Toyota loses the case, it could call into question settlements and court judgments in which Biller was involved.

Turner was the lead attorney in a 2005 federal court case in Mississippi against Toyota that was settled out of court. He represented a pregnant woman and her fetus who were brain-damaged when the 1996 Toyota 4Runner she was driving rolled over in an accident.

Biller alleged he was subjected to intimidation and harassment by Toyota employees, both when he was employed at Toyota and after he left.

As a result, Biller said in the lawsuit, he's been in psychiatric treatment for the last four years. In 2007, he said, he was diagnosed with major depressive syndrome.

Biller said that at the time he agreed to the $3.7-million severance agreement, he "was being treated and medicated for the psychiatric and physical problems from which he was suffering."

Toyota said Biller's agreement forbade him from discussing company information and he violated that deal by filing the lawsuit.

"We are disappointed that Mr. Biller has elected to file this lawsuit in an attempt to avoid what we believe are his obligations as an attorney formerly employed by Toyota," the company said.

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william.hennigan@latimes.com

twitter.com/wjhenn

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