A Tipping Point

[Editor’s Note: The following article is a response to best-selling author Malcom Gladwell’s recent podcast “Blame Game” on the Toyota unintended acceleration crisis. Gladwell’s depiction of the controversial defect issues plaguing Toyotas is wildly inaccurate and refuted in many public record documents.

Out-of-Control Toyotas, Out-of-Luck Owners

Earlier this month, Rich Grandy of Crystal Beach, Florida was easing his 2005 Toyota Tacoma into a parking space in front of his local 7-Eleven, when it took off, hit the front doors of the convenience store and shattered the adjacent picture window. The only thing that kept the Tacoma from advancing further into the convenience store was the low wall that framed the window and Grandy’s foot clamped on the brake. As his vehicle attempted to labor forward, Grandy shut off the ignition, and the event stopped.

NHTSA Seeks Input on Electronics Rule

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has published a Federal Register Notice seeking comments on the possibility of writing regulations to ensure the safety of automotive electronics. The 10-page request for comments, satisfying a directive from the federal legislation known as MAP–21 to “complete an examination of the need for safety standards with regard to electronic systems in passenger motor vehicles,” would have been an excellent addition to Volume 54 of the Federal Register (published in 1989).

Toyota’s Billion Dollar Web

Back in 2010, after Toyota announced that a federal grand jury in New York had subpoenaed the company on June 29 for documents regarding relay rod failures in Toyota truck models, we asked if the automaker would be the first to be prosecuted under the Transportation Recall Enhanced Accountability and Documentation Act (TREAD).

Well, right question, wrong defect.

Under the settlement with the Department of Justice announced today, Toyota is banged for $1.2 billion, and prosecution for committing one count of wire fraud is deferred for three years, for the lies it told about the floor mat entrapment and sticky pedal recalls. According to Toyota’s Statement of Facts, the automaker sought to limit its floor mat recalls, even though the entrapment hazard affected other models, and resisted the sticky pedal recall, even though Toyota had addressed the problem in Europe.

“This sends a mixed message,” says Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies. “On the one hand, a $1.2 billion fine is a very significant hit. But the government’s focus is only on the narrow areas of the floor mats and sticky pedals. The bulk of Toyota vehicles experiencing Unintended Acceleration problems were never recalled.  That billion dollars doesn’t do a thing for Toyota owners stuck with defective vehicles.”

The skeleton of this particular set of lies have been in the public domain for several years. In April 2010, when former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced that the agency had imposed a $16.4 million fine on Toyota for failing to recall 2.3 million vehicles with defective accelerator pedals – then the largest civil penalty NHTSA had levied against an automaker – the Secretary failed to make public the documents laying out his rationale. In May 2011, NHTSA quietly posted the sternly worded demand letter that explained why Toyota got slapped.

To remind our readers, Toyota recalled the CTS supplied pedal in Europe in September 2009, but waited until January 2010 to recall the pedals in the U.S. However, on October 7, 2009, “a staff member of the Toyota Motor Corporation Product Planning and Management Division sent a copy of an Engineering Design Instruction describing the pedal remedy that was already implemented in Europe to someone at Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc. for the accelerator pedal of a RAV 4 manufactured in Canada. Two weeks later “a member of the TMC PPM inexplicably instructed a member of the TEMA PPM not to implement this Engineering Change Instruction. Furthermore, in November 2009, Toyota provided NHTSA with FTRs regarding sticking accelerator pedals on vehicles in the United States but not with information regarding Toyota’s extensive testing and determinations regarding the cause of the sticking accelerator pedals or an explanation of the significance of the FTRs, the demand letter said.

The Toyota Owners Left Holding the Bag

John Biello was not ready for the cruise control malfunction that sent his 2009 Tacoma careening down an exit ramp, then skidding into a rollover last June. But Tuesday, when he and his wife Diane appeared before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Insurance Board of Appeals to fight an automatic rate increase mandated by state law, Biello was fully prepared to educate the hearing officer about Unintended Acceleration problems in Toyotas.

As the great tide of cash washes from Toyota into the pockets of the U.S. government, attorneys, research institutions and some death and injury victims to settle fines and claims without an admission that the automaker’s electronic throttle control system is defective, owners like John and Diane Biello represent those left to deal with Toyota’s mistakes on their own. The Rehoboth, Massachusetts couple had no counsel, just a compelling account and a binder of public documents showing that Toyota Unintended Acceleration problems continue today and that juries and technical experts recognize what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not: Toyota’s badly designed electronic architecture can cause UA.

“I knew that there had been this unintended acceleration problem. I had read about it a couple of years ago,” John Biello says. “But I thought it pretty much done. I thought the problem was fixed and I didn’t really think my vehicle was involved because I got no Unintended Acceleration recall notices.”

Toyota Lawsuits Wrapped?

Toyota is looking to close out its unintended acceleration crisis, with a speedy resolution to the remaining lawsuits out there. According to news reports, the automaker has been inspired by the Bookout verdict to settle a whole passel of UA lawsuits. Last month, for example, Toyota came to terms with Opal Gay Vance, a West Virginia woman who injured her neck and back, when her 2010 Camry suddenly accelerated, striking a trailer. The confidential settlement forestalled a trial set to begin on Jan. 21. In California, orders from judges in the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana and Los Angeles Superior Court opened the door to settlements in nearly 300 death and injury plaintiffs’ cases.

“We’re glad to see that Toyota has decided to approach this in a systematic and forthright way, and we look forward to seeing most of the pending claims settled in early 2014,” says attorney Donald Slavik of Robinson, Calcagnie, Robinson, Shapiro, Davis Inc. of Newport Beach, CA.

The race to empty the court dockets should not be confused with a conclusion to Toyota’s UA technical problems, which continue unabated. SRS took a stroll through the Vehicle Owners Questionnaire database, looking for 2013 UA complaints and found more than 300. They cover all of the classic scenarios, like this one:

"I backed my 2006 Toyota Corolla into a friend's driveway, and then put the car into drive to straighten it a bit. The car suddenly without warning shot across the street (perhaps at 45-50 mph), went over a 6" high cement retaining curbing, and across a lawn into another driveway. All the while I had my foot firmly on the brake (not the gas pedal). I swerved the wheel to avoid hitting a telephone pole, and the house. I finally got the car into neutral, and at last the brakes engaged, and I was able to stop the car avoiding a pick-up truck in the driveway and a tree. During this entire time the engine was loudly revving. Other than 3 shredded tires and 2 ruined rims, the car seems to be intact. I have contacted Toyota and hope for a successful resolution. The service manager at the dealership where this vehicle was purchased, however, said that since it is not under recall there is nothing they can do. Meanwhile I will be fearful every time I get behind the wheel, which I have yet to do!    3 new tires and 2 new rims is a small price to pay - it could have been my life! Had cars been passing by on this normally busy street, or children walking on the sidewalk on their way home from school - other lives as well could have been taken. This was a terrifying event! Judging from all of the similar stories written regarding this make, model and year, Toyota needs to do a recall to solve this problem once and for all." (ODI 10496026)

Toyota Electronics = Guilty In Bookout

Toyota this morning quickly settled an Unintended Acceleration case, before it could move into the punitive damages phase – hours after an Oklahoma jury has returned a $3 million verdict against the automaker in a 2007 crash that seriously injured the driver and killed her passenger.

In September 2007, Jean Bookout and her friend and passenger Barbara Schwarz were exiting Interstate Highway 69 in Oklahoma in a 2005 Camry. As she sped down the ramp, Bookout realized that she could not stop her car. She pulled the parking brake, leaving a 100-foot skid mark from right rear tire, and a 50-foot skid mark from the left. The Camry, however, continued speeding down the ramp, across the road at the bottom, and finally came to rest with its nose in an embankment. Schwarz died of her injuries; Bookout spent two months recovering from head and back injuries.

 The jury yesterday awarded $1.5 million in damages to Bookout and another $1.5 million to the Schwarz family and determined that Toyota acted with “reckless disregard.”

This was the first trial in which the plaintiffs, represented by Graham Esdale and Cole Portis of Beasley Allen in Montgomery, Alabama, made Toyota electronic malfunctions the centerpiece of an Unintended Acceleration case. And what may be significant going forward is not the verdict – although Oklahoma juries are not known for being overly sympathetic to plaintiff – but what is entered into the public record about what Toyota knows about the failures of its Electronic Throttle Control System– Intelligent (ETCS-i) and when they knew it. And what facts will fly from the nest of civil jurisprudence and into the public consciousness.

Toyota’s Motion is Extra-Judicialious!

Two judges have turned down Toyota’s request to bar Plaintiffs from speaking to the press about their unintended acceleration cases.

Guadaloupe Alberto of Flint, Michigan died in April 2008, when her 2005 Camry accelerated out of control, left the roadway and struck a tree. Alberto was known as a cautious driver; the 2005 Camry is known as one Toyota’s most problematic UA vehicles. Alberto v. Toyota is now set for trial in February 2014.

In September 2007, Jean Bookout and her friend and passenger Barbara Schwarz were exiting Interstate Highway 69 in Oklahoma in a 2005 Camry. As she sped down the ramp, Bookout realized that she could not stop her car. She pulled the parking brake, leaving a 100-foot skid mark from right rear tire, and a 50-foot skid mark from the left. The Camry, however, continued speeding down the ramp, across the road at the bottom, and finally came to rest with its nose in an embankment. Schwarz died of her injuries; Bookout spent two months recovering from head and back injuries. Bookout v. Toyota is also soon headed for trial in the District Court of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma.

On Sept. 4, Toyota moved for a gag order in Alberto, to stop the family and its attorneys, including West Virginia lawyers Benjamin Baily and Edgar “Hike” Heiskell III, from talking to the press.

“Defendants believe that statements to the media and the release of witness deposition testimony will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing the proceedings and jury selection as prospective jurors should consider only the evidence present at the trial,” the automaker argued.

Kia and the Breaking Brake Switch that’s Been Broken

Remember Lauri Ulvestad? She was the unfortunate owner of a 2011 KIA Sorrento, which took her on a wild 60-mile ride, at speeds topping out at 115 mph, around sedans and 18-wheelers along the north-bound corridor Interstate 35 in Harrison County, Missouri. The Missouri State Highway Patrol, which escorted Ulvestad until she was able to bring the vehicle to a stop, captured the event with an on-board camera.

At the time, the automaker said that it could not duplicate the event, and that it was “an isolated incident.” But, it bought Ulvestad’s Kia double-quick.

Well, today it turned out that the Ulvestad incident wasn’t so isolated after all. Kia and Hyundai announced that they were recalling 1.9 million vehicles from the 2006-2011 model years for a brake switch failure. The long list of vehicles includes: Hyundai Accent, Elantra, Genesis Coupe, Santa Fe, Sonata, Tucson and Veracruz vehicles and Kias Optima, Rondo, Sedona, Sorento, Soul and Sportage.

According to KIA’s Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance Report:

"The stop lamp switch" (also known as a brake switch) "on vehicles in the subject recall population may experience intermittent switch point contact. This condition could potentially result in intermittent operation of the push-button start feature, intermittent ability to remove the vehicle's shifter from the Park position, illumination of the 'ESC' (Electronic Stability Control) indicator lamp in the instrument cluster, intermittent interference with operation of the cruise control feature, or intermittent operation of the stop lamps. Intermittent operation of the stop lamps increases the risk of a crash."

How does this description square with Lauri Ulvestad’s experience? Let’s see:

Betsy Spills Toyota’s Beans

To steal a line from Bogie: “Of all the publications in all the websites in all the world, she walks into Corporate Counsel.” She – being Betsy Benjaminson, a freelance translator from Israel who was tasked with translating from Japanese into English documents regarding Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Corporate Counsel -- being the self-described “leading digital destination for in-house counsel to find breaking news and practical information.” And this bit of breaking news? When you lie to the world about an automotive electronics problem that has the potential to result in fatal crashes, don’t expect every underling to keep your secrets.

The story, entitled Is Toyota Telling the Truth About Sudden Acceleration? (Spoiler alert: the answer is: No.) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a company in disarray with a technically challenging problem that its technicians weren’t looking too hard to solve, while its legal and public relations gears clicked into place to drive the denial machine forward. Our favorite:

“Hagiwara and Chris Tinto, a V.P. for technical and regulatory affairs and safety, had been talking about the U.S. investigation and an earlier one in Europe that also involved unintended acceleration (UA).

‘Tinto is extremely pessimistic,’ Hagiwara wrote, ‘and is saying (public hearings, someone will go to jail, I can't completely take care of the pedal problem, etc.).’ Tinto's primary concerns (according to Hagiwara): ‘For NHTSA, we said that our investigations in Europe found that the pedal return is a little slow at a slightly open position, and that there were no accidents, but this is not true. Last year's situation in Europe (many reports of sticking pedals and accidents, and a TI TS9-161 was filed on October 1, 2009) was not reported to NHTSA.’ That failure, Tinto said, ‘may be a violation of the TREAD Act’—the federal law that requires car manufacturers that conduct recalls in foreign countries to report these to U.S. regulators.”

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