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Toyota kept issue silent, lawsuit says

Workers allegedly saw and replicated events of unintended acceleration, and owners of the vehicles were sworn to secrecy.

October 29, 2010|Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian

Employees at Toyota dealerships witnessed and duplicated sudden acceleration in the company's vehicles several times in the last decade, yet the automaker did not report the findings to regulators, new allegations in a federal lawsuit charge.

The claims, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, also allege that Toyota Motor Corp. bought back vehicles from owners who complained of sudden acceleration in exchange for confidentiality agreements barring them from discussing the matter.

The complaint, which amends a multi-party suit filed this year claiming economic loss for owners of Toyota and Lexus vehicles, includes numerous examples of acceleration complaints pulled from company documents and reviewed by plaintiffs' attorneys.

In July 2009, for example, a service manager at an unidentified Toyota dealership reported test-driving a Tacoma pickup that accelerated to 95 mph from 71 mph with the driver's foot completely off the gas pedal, according to an internal memo cited in the suit. The automaker approved a repurchase of the vehicle.

"The company knew it had a problem, but they didn't know the cause of the problem," said Steve Berman, the lead attorney in the civil case. "They maintained their silence and tried to cover it up."

The complaint, weighing in at nearly 1,100 pages, draws on thousands of Toyota documents that were given to Congress by the automaker earlier this year and subsequently made available to plaintiffs lawyers. It includes a list of 5,264 complaints of unintended acceleration from an internal Toyota database dating back to 2000. That list excluded cases in which motorists blamed the problem on floor mats or sticking gas pedals.

In a statement, Toyota said it looked forward to defending itself against the allegations.

"Toyota quickly and thoroughly investigates any customer reports of unintended acceleration in its vehicles," the automaker said.

In the Tacoma case, for example, Toyota said its engineers were unable to repeat the sudden acceleration reported by the dealership. It also said its engineers could not replicate sudden acceleration in a Corolla that was repurchased after a dealer reported sudden-acceleration problems.

"Test driving of these vehicles is ongoing and they are operating safely," the automaker said.

Toyota also said it had notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the reported acceleration problems with those vehicles on three occasions.

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair said the agency received the field reports this year among hundreds of thousands of Toyota documents it requested for its own investigations into the automaker. In addition, Alair said, the agency received a notice of the Tacoma in December, but it was just one of tens of thousands of reports filed by the industry every quarter.

"NHTSA is talking with Toyota about the field reports," Alair said.

Toyota has issued more than 12 million recall notices worldwide in the last 13 months, many related to sudden-acceleration problems, including actions to fix gas pedals that can stick and floor mats that can entrap the accelerator.

In addition to three ongoing NHTSA probes of sudden acceleration, Toyota is the focus of several Congressional investigations and in April it agreed to pay a record $16.4-million fine for delaying a recall. NASA and the National Academy of Sciences are conducting their own studies into sudden acceleration.

The embattled automaker has seen its share of the U.S. market slide to 15.2% through the first nine months of this year, from 16.6% a year earlier.

But it has also fought hard to restore its image while vigorously denying allegations that electronic problems could be behind sudden acceleration. This summer, Toyota cited data from black box-style recorders in its vehicles implying that drivers could be at fault.

And last month, Toyota settled a lawsuit filed by the family of four people killed in a crash involving a Lexus ES 350 outside San Diego in August 2009. That accident drew national attention to the sudden-acceleration problem.

The automaker has asked the court to seal details of the settlement.

The Times reported in December that Toyota or its dealers quietly repurchased some of its vehicles that were the subject of sudden-acceleration complaints.

In 2004, the company repurchased a year-old Camry from Joan Marschall after she took it to a dealer. The vehicle was later resold in Southern California, records show. Similarly, Toyota repurchased a 2006 Lexus IS 250 from a man in Camden, Ark., after his daughter reported sudden-acceleration problems. That car was resold in Florida.

Toyota told The Times that it had no policy to repurchase vehicles from customers complaining about sudden acceleration, though its dealers may act on their own to "preserve goodwill."

The new complaint cites an internal company memo from January spelling out efforts to minimize the effect of the crisis, warning employees to exclude executive names from e-mails related to sudden acceleration, remove attachments and mark messages "secret."

ken.bensinger@ latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian@ latimes.com

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