Civil Litigator, Consumer Champion Heiskell Dies

Former West Virginia Secretary of State and well-known plaintiffs’ attorney Edgar “Hike” Heiskell III died yesterday after a brief battle with cancer. He was 76 years old.

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.

Unfortunate Chapter Continues: Toyota Bounced for $11 Million in UA Case

Toyota’s runaway success in blaming drivers for its defective vehicles, hit an $11 million pothole yesterday, after a Minnesota federal jury found that the automaker was 60 percent responsible for an Unintended Acceleration (UA) crash that killed three and severely injured two.

Attorney Robert C. Hilliard, who represented plaintiffs Koua Fong Lee, the driver, and the family in the vehicle that was struck, says it’s the first jury verdict against Toyota in a UA case involving a mechanical defect. The automaker made no offer to settle the case prior to the January trial.

Time to Close the Silver Book

For a report that’s a quarter of a century-old, testing old technology and resting on questionable assumptions, An Examination of Sudden Acceleration (also known as the Silver Book) has exerted an out-sized influence over the search for root causes in unintended acceleration events. Manufacturers have loved the document, for its emphasis on driver error as the cause of any event that cannot be readily reproduced.

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).

What Good Can Come of Reporting Toyota UA?

Last week, two young clean-cut and preternaturally earnest lawyers travelled from the D.C. and New York offices of Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP to meet with Bob and Kathy Ruginis, the Bristol, RI couple who reported their Unintended Acceleration incident while parking to the Toyota Special Monitor and to NHTSA.  

The Pedal Error Error

If the Toyota Unintended Acceleration has taught us anything, it’s the importance of examining NHTSA’s process before accepting its conclusions. The authority of the federal government automatically confers, in large measure, a public (including the mainstream media) acceptance of its pronouncements of scientific certitude. Few take the time to study their foundations. To this end, SRS has devoted more time and resources to obtaining the agency’s original source documents, data and communications around investigations, rulemakings and NHTSA-sponsored reports than we care to count. We have filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests in pursuit of these informational bases.

Another thing we have learned: NHTSA really doesn’t want the public to know how it does what it does. Our FOIA requests have morphed into FOIA lawsuits (three and counting), as the agency either denies us information that is public or claims to have none, even when the crumbs NHTSA’s FOIA staff toss to us show unequivocally that, in fact, they do have the information.

And that brings us to Pedal Application Errors, NHTSA’s last nail in the Electronically-Caused UA coffin. This report made a number of strong claims regarding who is likely to make a pedal application error and how it is likely to occur. They do not bode well for any woman of a certain age who has the misfortune to be behind the wheel of an electronically caused UA. The report’s writers based on a variety of data sources, including crashes from the Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (MVCCS), the North Carolina state crash database, a media review of pedal misapplication news stories and the insights garnered from a panel of rehabilitation specialists. Naturally, we wanted to look at all these data, and we requested them.

The response from the government, to put it kindly, was less than complete. NHTSA claimed that it didn’t have any of the underlying data, except the list of crashes from the MVCCS. It sent us the transcript of the one-and-a-half day meeting of rehabilitation specialists and Dr. Richard Schmidt, that prodigious peddler of the all-purpose, wholly unsupported and unscientific pedal misapplication theory the auto industry – and NHTSA – loves.

Ford Offers “False” Testimony; Alliance Swears to It

From the annals of chutzpah: On March 12, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers filed a friend of the court brief to head off a potentially disastrous breach in the auto industry’s carefully constructed dam around the causes of unintended acceleration (UA). To wit, there are no electronic causes of unintended acceleration. This phenomenon, as the industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have it, is solely caused by drivers hitting the wrong pedal and mechanical causes, such as pedal entrapment and bound Bowden cables. Electronic systems cannot have electronic malfunctions that can go undetected or cause UA, got that?

William T. Swigert, the Senior Judge of the Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, however, had no respect for industry/government mythology. He set aside a jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, after deciding that Ford’s victory in Stimpson v. Ford was won with “false and misleading” testimony and defrauded the federal government to boot, by claiming that it knew of no other cause of unintended acceleration than driver error and concealing years of testing that showed that electromagnetic interference was a frequent root cause of UA in Ford vehicles. (See How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today)

Automakers Blame Drivers, But Settle Unintended Acceleration Cases

Two recent settlements in Unintended Acceleration (UA) cases remind us that while Toyota has sucked all the oxygen in the room over this defect, other automakers’ products equipped with electronic throttle controls are also getting their share of complaints, causing their share of injury and property damage and winding up in civil court.

In the last month, Thomas J. Murray & Associates, a law firm based in Sandusky, Ohio, reached confidential settlements against Kia Motors America and Subaru for seriously injured plaintiffs who claimed that their vehicles suffered an unintended acceleration event.

The first case involved Mary McDaniels, a visiting nurse from Norton, Ohio, who was returning to the office after seeing a patient, when the throttle of her 2006 KIA Amanti suddenly opened, as she crept along in stop-and-go traffic. With vehicles in front of her and oncoming traffic directly to her left, McDaniels chose to steer her rapidly accelerating sedan off the road.

Attorney Molly O’Neill says that McDaniels testified that her first reaction was: “What is happening to me?” When McDaniels looked down to affirm the position of her foot, she saw that it was on the brake. The Amanti hit a ditch, became airborne, skidded and collided with a tree. McDaniels’ leg was fractured in several places. She is unable to walk without assistance as a result of the Dec. 26, 2007 crash and had to give up her job.

McDaniels v Kia Motors America went to trial in October. Over two weeks of testimony, the Murrray legal team was able to show that Kia’s “American engineers were aware of unintended acceleration or surging events not ascribed to driver error,” O’Neill says. “They surmised it could be electronic.” McDaniels’ Kia was bought as “new” with a full warranty, even though it had 6,900 miles on it at the time of purchase and had been used by Kia as an in-house vehicle.

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