Toyota and Truth

Is Toyota committed to telling the truth? That question goes unasked as the news outlets splash recall, factory shut down, and apology stories across their front pages, websites and TV news shows.

Four people died in a speeding Lexus in August of 2009. A woman died when her family’s Camry accelerated across a parking lot and over a cliff as her husband tried to brake. Are these cases of driver error, or are the families of these people among those to whom Toyota now extends its apologies for delay in addressing unwanted acceleration?

Dimitiros Biller, a staff attorney for Toyota for four years, has sued Toyota in California seeking release of documents from what he says are 300 suits in which Toyota withheld or destroyed evidence.

Denial and dishonesty is not new in the automobile industry. In the case of Davis v American Honda, Honda was defaulted after a trial judge found that its defense team destroyed evidence and lied about it during trial of a civil case filed by a young woman rendered quadriplegic in the crash of an allegedly defective Honda Civic. More recently, in Magana v. Hyundai Motor America, a judge in the State of Washington ordered the entry of a default judgment against Hyundai for withholding critical information in a lawsuit alleging defects in the design of the seats in a Hyundai Accent.

Having successfully prosecuted auto defect suits against Toyota, Hyundai, General Motors and others, we at Berman and Simmons know what injured people are up against. The manufacturers are well-organized and well-funded, they have a lot to lose if a jury finds one of their products defective, and they are experienced litigators. They know how to defend by giving up as little information as possible. We are fortunate in America in general, and in Maine in particular, to have open courtrooms and judges who call dishonesty what it is and mete out appropriate punishment to dishonest defendants. Still, for an injured person to get to trial against a manufacturer committed to withholding information, is a significant challenge, legally and financially.

Toyota should take this opportunity to not only pledge to re-focus its corporate culture on quality, but also to commit its corporate culture to honesty and openness. One simple way it can do this is to make the information in its black box data recording devices available to the public. Like the black boxes in airplanes, these devices record pre-crash speed, throttle position, seat belt use, and braking efforts. Ford, GM and Chrysler have made this information accessible in their products for years. Toyota has refused, keeping the key to reading its software secret on the ground that the data collected by the computers in its cars and trucks is unreliable.

It is hard to believe that Toyota, which first successfully commercialized regenerative braking, which has built some of the world’s most efficient and successful robotized factories, and which claims to have been a leader in stability control and other safety technology, cannot accurately collect speed, time and distance data in its on-board computers. Despite its denials, one would think that Toyota can record electronic data as well as its competitors. If Toyota really lacks confidence in its ability to record data in its vehicles, it could buy a license for reliable technology from another company.

Rather than withholding data, Toyota should provide its dealers, its customers and the U.S. government the key to reading the data collected from its vehicles. Disclosing the translation software and providing access to the data should help explain the many accidents and injuries now attributed to acceleration, steering and brake system defects in Toyota products. Maybe the data will show that some accidents arise from driver error and that some arise from defects which Toyota should have fixed long ago. Why not let the truth come out?

By committing itself to an open and truthful culture, Toyota will honor its customers and the families of those who seek to understand violent and tragic accidents. By failing to commit to openness and honesty, Toyota dooms itself and its customers to costly replays of mistakes of the past.

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