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In Toyota cases, evasion becomes tactic

Published:Sunday | April 18, 2010 | 12:00 AM
In this March 3, 2009 file photo, unsold Toyota automobiles sit at a Toyota dealership lot in Bedford, Ohio.
Honda Fit - File photos


Toyota has routinely engaged in questionable and evasive legal tactics when sued, frequently claiming it does not have information it is required to turn over and sometimes even ignoring court orders to produce key documents, an Associated Press investigation shows.

In a review of lawsuits filed around the United States involving a wide range of complaints, not just the sudden acceleration problems that have led to millions of Toyotas being recalled, the automaker has hidden the existence of tests that would be harmful to its legal position and claimed key material was difficult to get at its headquarters in Japan. It has withheld potentially damaging documents and refused to release data stored electronically in its vehicles.

For example, in a Colorado product liability lawsuit filed by a man whose young daughter was killed in a 4Runner rollover crash, Toyota withheld documents about internal roof strength tests despite a federal judge's order that such information be produced, according to court records. The attorneys for Jon Kurylowicz now say such documents might have changed the outcome of the case, which ended in a 2005 jury verdict for Toyota.

"Mr Kurylowicz went to trial without having been given all the relevant evidence and all the evidence the court ordered Toyota to produce," attorney Stuart Ollanik wrote in a new federal lawsuit accusing Toyota of fraud in the earlier case. "The Kurylowicz trial was not a fair trial."

Identical lawsuit

In another case involving a Texas woman killed when her Toyota Land Cruiser lurched backward and pinned her against a garage wall, the Japanese automaker told lawyers for the woman's family it was unaware of any similar cases. Yet less than a year earlier, Toyota had settled a nearly identical lawsuit in the same state involving a Baptist minister who was severely injured after he said his Land Cruiser abruptly rolled backward over him. Under court discovery rules, Toyota had an obligation to inform the woman's attorneys about the case when formally asked.

"Automobile manufacturers, in my practice, have been the toughest to deal with when it comes to sharing information, but Toyota has no peer," said attorney Ernest Cannon, who represented the family of 35-year-old Lisa Evans, who died in 2002 in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land.

The AP reviewed numerous cases around the country in which Toyota's actions were evasive, and sometimes even deceptive, in providing answers to questions posed by plaintiffs. Court rules generally allow a person or company who is sued to object to turning over requested information; it's permitted and even expected that defence attorneys play hardball, but it's a violation to claim evidence does not exist when it does.

Similar claims have been lodged by Dimities Billed, a former Toyota attorney who sued the company in August, contending it withheld evidence in considerably older roll-over cases.

Rep Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has subpoenaed some of Billet's still-undisclosed records, says they show possible violations of discovery orders.

Playing by the rules

Toyota disputes Towns' statement and the accusations of deception. In a statement to the AP, Toyota said it plays by the rules when it comes to defending itself.

"Toyota takes its legal obligations seriously and strives to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards, in connection with litigation and otherwise," the company said. "We are confident we have acted appropriately with respect to product liability litigation."

How Toyota handled past lawsuits could indicate how it will deal with more than 130 potential class-action lawsuits filed by owners who claim the recent recalls have triggered a sharp loss in their vehicles' value. Separately, Toyota faces nearly 100 federal wrongful death and injury lawsuits by victims who blame their crashes on sudden acceleration.

A panel of federal judges decided last week to consolidate the sudden acceleration-related cases before U.S. District Judge James V. Sean in Orange County, Caliph., near Los Angeles. Sean will handle key pre-trial matters in all the cases, including decisions on what material and documents Toyota will be required to produce as evidence.