This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
It’s bad enough that Toyota cars are the subject of a massive recall, more than 130 potential class-action lawsuits, and nearly 100 federal lawsuits claiming wrongful death and injury due to sudden acceleration.
But to paraphrase a Watergate-era maxim: It’s not the car, it’s the cover-up.
Any manufacturer can encounter the kind of mechanical problems Toyota is dealing with. What’s unforgivable is that the company apparently has gone to great lengths to hide its culpability from regulators and judges.
Federal regulators just slapped Toyota with a $16.4 million fine – the maximum possible – for failing to report problems it was aware of with accelerator pedals in some of its cars. The company waited months to alert the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, even though automakers are required to report such findings within five days.
Toyota didn’t just drag its feet in reporting problems. According to an Associated Press investigation, the Japanese automaker routinely withheld potentially damaging information it was required to produce in court cases it fought in recent years.
In at least one of those cases – involving a Colorado girl killed in a 4Runner rollover crash – the withheld information likely played a key role in Toyota winning its case. A federal judge had ruled that Toyota produce any information related to roof strength, but the automaker failed to disclose documents related to tests it had conducted. The plaintiff is now suing again – this time alleging fraud.
In a Texas case involving a woman killed when her Land Cruiser lurched and pinned her against the garage wall, Toyota claimed it was unaware of any similar cases. But it had recently settled a lawsuit for nearly an identical accident – in Texas, no less. Again, Toyota violated court rules by not disclosing the relevant information after it had been requested.
Toyota has also exploited the fact that it is based in Japan to evade its responsibilities.
“They’ve used the Pacific Ocean as a great defense to producing documents,” said a lawyer who has sued Toyota. When suing a domestic automaker, plaintiffs can get a court order for access. That’s not as easy when the defendant is half a world away.
Toyota’s president and CEO has pledged to do everything within his power to restore public trust in the company. A good beginning would be to announce that his lawyers will comply with American laws regarding discovery as they deal with the landslide of cases coming their way.