March 1, 2010
Juanita Grossman was a petite 77-year-old woman who died from the injuries sustained from barreling into a building full-speed in her 2003 Camry in March 2004. When the emergency medical technicians arrived to transport Mrs. Grossman to the hospital they found her with both feet still jammed on the brake pedal.
Mrs. Grossman was still conscious, and in the days before she succumbed to her injuries, she kept telling her family: The car ran away on me. The car ran way on me. These statements and the placement of both feet on the brake – verified by two independent witnesses at the scene of the crash – did not rouse the curiosity of Toyota or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which was in the midst of an investigation into Toyota’s electronic throttle control system when ODI investigators learned of her death.
How do you slam into a building with both feet mashed on the brake? Nobody knows, because neither Toyota nor NHTSA investigated her fatal crash.
Steve Ray, Mrs. Grossman’s son-in-law and a vice president of sales for an aerospace company, told SRS that Mrs. Grossman’s 2003 Camry was subjected to a visual inspection by insurance adjusters and Toyota’s Technical Analyst Manager Robert Landis, who came all the way out to Evansville, Indiana from Toyota’s U.S. headquarter in Torrance, Calif., with his camera to determine what went wrong.
On May 5, 2004, in the presence of the Grossman family attorneys, Landis photographed the vehicle engine and the accelerator pedal and blamed Grossman for the crash saying that she obviously has abused the accelerator pedal on her way into the Statewide Realty offices, Ray recalled. (Mrs. Grossman, 5’2”, weighed 125 lbs. at the time of her death.)
“He didn’t bring a computer,” recalled Ray. “He just came and looked at the car. He said the gas pedal was bent. Everything he said was it was her fault; she was slamming on the gas pedal versus the brake pedal. She was sharp as a tack and also the type of person, if she would have done it and she would have known it and she would have admitted it. She was very insistent that she did not cause that accident. From what I saw, they were just defending Toyota.”
The Grossman family’s attorneys summarized Landis’s two-hour inspection. It noted that Landis performed no diagnostic testing of the components, including the engine computer unit, the body computer unit, or the transmission computer unit. Instead Landis focused on the accelerator pedal, which “showed signs of being bent,” he said. Landis theorized that those signs were caused by someone pressing hard on the accelerator, and he took multiple pictures of the pedal. Neither the attorneys who were present at the inspection, nor the technical expert hired by Grossman’s insurer, State Auto Insurance, saw any significant bend to the pedal.
Landis inspected the engine compartment and put the vehicle on a lift to examine the brakes and found nothing wrong with the brakes. He told the Grossmans’ attorney that all of the engine diagnostics would have been erased when the battery was disconnected, nor would the airbag sensor tell him anymore than the speed at the time of the crash. The summary noted: “Mr. Landis further indicated that there was no sensor that would have preserved information regarding the accelerator and brake positions at the time of impact.”
According to the summary, Mr. Landis told the attorney: “if a person would apply the brake when the accelerator was stuck, the brakes were powerful enough to stop the vehicle. In other words, the brakes were more powerful than the accelerator. He stated that this was true of all vehicles. He then commented that it would require a double malfunction for this accident to have occurred the way it had been theorized. It would require a stuck accelerator and a brake malfunction. He stated that this was highly unlikely particularly if there had been no prior complaints by Mrs. Grossman regarding the brake or accelerator systems.”
The summary raises more questions than it answers, but it does tell us a few things:
One, Toyota had a defense of its defective system down pat by the time Juanita Grossman died: brakes always overcome an open throttle and there was zero possibility of a simultaneous failure of brake and accelerator. Toyota would repeat this line to many others who complained of an SUA event in which the brakes failed to stop the vehicle.
Two, the Event Data Recorder in the vehicle – the magical black box that some members of Congress were so fixated upon at Tuesdays’ House government oversight sub-committee – according to Toyota, isn’t going tell anyone what they want to know about the brake and accelerator pedal position in an SUA crash.
Three, no one followed up on the observation from the emergency medical technicians that Mrs. Grossman’s feet were on the brake. No one examined the brake light filaments, no one searched for any witnesses who might have observed the crash. No one determined the speed of the crash.
And now, the rest of the story: Ray first called NHTSA on April 20, and spoke to ODI investigator Scott Yon, several times. Ray informed Yon about the upcoming Camry inspection, but nobody from NHTSA showed up. That could have been because even though it had an active investigation into Camry throttle control electronics, NHTSA had already specifically excluded crashes like Mrs. Grossman’s — longer duration sudden unintended acceleration incidents in which the brakes didn’t work –from Preliminary Evaluation 04-021. On March 23, 2004, a day after Juanita Grossman died, Yon wrote a memo to the file of PE04-021 saying that the agency had decided to only look at short-duration SUA incidents.
“I thought they would be more aggressive, because there was a death,” Ray said. “It just went into the stack. And that surprised me.”
By the time Ray reached NHTSA on April 20, NHTSA knew of two other Camry deaths in which SUA was alleged: the Las Vegas crash in January that sent George and Maureen Yago rocketing off a fourth-floor parking garage in their Camry. By the time NHTSA closed PE04-021 in July 2004, the agency was aware of seven deaths in early-model Camrys in which SUA was alleged. None were included in the investigation’s official data count. As far as we can determine in the public record, none were investigated.
Ray recalled that Yon listened sympathetically, and told Ray that Toyota was not cooperative in any investigation.
“We discussed the procedure of what happens at the NHTSA after a complaint is filed. He said Juanita’s complaint was in stage one, a Preliminary Evaluation, and information would be requested from Toyota which would take four to six months He said it would then go into stage two, Engineering Evaluation, which could take one to one and a half years and would need evidence to go further,” Ray said in an email to SRS.
Yon offered no more than to put the Grossman crash on file. PE04-021 closed in four months. It was never elevated to an Engineering Analysis.
How do you slam into a building and wind up with both feet on the brake? Nobody in a position to do anything about it cared to find out.
The attorneys dropped the case because Indiana law limited damages in a product liability case to $300,000. On June 15, 2004, Berger & Berger wrote to the Grossman family:
“Based upon the information we have obtained in the matter, our law firm does not believe that further investigation would be beneficial, particularly given the expense involved in doing such an investigation. In addition to the Three Thousand Dollars ($3,000.00) for the salvage of the vehicle, plus the storage fees, it would be necessary to obtain the services of an expert to do an analysis of the vehicle. This would be quite costly and of unlikely benefit.”
“We didn’t have the money to go up against a big company like Toyota, so we had to drop it.” Ray said.
Juanita Grossman’s Camry was presumably sent to salvage, because no one wanted to pay the storage fees. A confused old lady mashed the accelerator, when she meant to press the brake. Case closed.
In light of recent events, this week, Ray was back in touch with Yon and Toyota. He said that Yon was still complained about Toyota’s lack of cooperation with NHTSA. A customer service representative on the automaker’s 800 number said he would forward Ray’s claim on.
Last week, Toyota Motor Sales CEO Jim Lentz once again took his place in the hot seat, this time before Congressional interlocutors. Again, he expressed his confidence that the problems in Toyota are not electronic. Mr. Lentz, Mr. Toyoda, anybody, anybody at Toyota, please explain to us:
How does one slam a vehicle into a building with both feet on the brake pedal? Nobody knows.