Will Toyota Be Number One in Criminal Violations Under the TREAD Act?

Toyota’s announcement that it is the subject of a federal criminal probe in the relay rod recalls begs a question: Will it be the first automaker to be criminally prosecuted under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act?

Today, the automaker released – via a statement to the Tokyo Stock Exchange – the news that a federal grand jury in New York had subpoenaed the company on June 29 for documents regarding relay rod failures.

Toyota said:  “The company and our subsidiaries will cooperate with the investigation with sincerity.”

Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration: The New Numbers Are In!

Safety Research & Strategies has completed our latest review of Toyota unintended acceleration complaint data.  Our database consists of incidents from the following sources:

  • Consumer complaints to NHTSA through June 7, 2010
  • Toyota-submitted claims from several NHTSA investigations into unintended acceleration
  • Incidents reported by media organizations
  • Consumer contacts made to our organization and other firms that are reporting incidents that they have received

Jury Finds Sunbeam’s Improved Electric Blanket Circuit Still Doesn’t Fail Safe

A Missouri federal court jury has found Sunbeam Products, Inc. partially responsible for serious burn injuries suffered by a bed-bound elderly woman who was sleeping under one of its electric blankets, when the blanket caught fire.

Barbara Kay of Morgan County, Missouri was sleeping under a Sunbeam electric blanket on October 28, 2008 when it ignited, severely burning 35 percent of her body. Kay had been invalided by a stroke 10 years earlier, which had paralyzed the left side of her body. Kay was also a smoker who smoked in bed, and kept her cigarettes, lighter and ash trays on a tray positioned on her right side, along with the controls for her hospital bed and electric blanket. At about 7 a.m., Kay awoke to pain on her left side and saw flames leaping out of the left side of the bed near her leg and hip. Kay, who was in her 70s, recuperated in the hospital for five months, but lost part of her left arm, as a result of her burns.

Fire department investigators determined that fire originated on the left side of the hospital bed, and narrowed the source of ignition to the blanket or a cigarette, but concluded that a burning cigarette was most likely the source of the fire.

In late June, however, a civil jury concluded that the blanket played a role in the fire, and in awarding Kay $2 million in compensatory damages, assigned one third of the blame to Sunbeam. In the second phase of the trial, the jury heard evidence of Sunbeam’s $1.9 billion net worth, to determine punitive damages. George McLaughlin, who represented the Kays with co-counsel James Crispin, asked for $1 each for the 30 million blankets Sunbeam had sold. But before the jury could decide, Sunbeam and the Kays reached a confidential settlement.

No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota

The Wall Street Journal made a splash yesterday when it reported that the US DOT had analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota vehicles in crashes blamed on unintended acceleration and found that the throttles were open and brakes were not applied.  These findings support Toyota’s position that SUA events are not caused by vehicle electronics, the Journal claimed.  The Journal apparently based its report on information leaked by Toyota, because NHTSA is denying any involvement.

Toyota’s efforts to place the story with the Journal seem to be paying dividends –  literally. The automaker’s stock rose 1 percent on the news and reporters scrambled to repeat the Journal piece with no independent sources.

Every Time We Learn Something Else, It Gets Worse (for Toyota)

Some day, possibly very soon, the Harvard Business School is going to do a case study on Toyota and sudden unintended acceleration, and two of the underlying principles are going to be: Don’t lie so (bleeping) much; and Swat not the gadfly with a sledgehammer.

We know that Toyota has compounded its technical problem with a public relations disaster, but we’re always fascinated to learn that it’s worse than we thought – to wit Toyota v. David Gilbert.

Toyota Washington Watch

We sat through the National Academies of Science first public meeting to tackle the Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration Study, a NHTSA-sponsored effort to look broadly at the issue, and we are happy to see that the agency has brought in some outside expertise.

This is truly an opportunity for the regulators to advance their knowledge base beyond the era of the mechanical automobile and into the age of automotive electronics, rapidly migrating from a vehicle’s entertainment center to its most basic functions of acceleration, braking and steering. It is critical to future policy setting and defect analysis.

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