Our law firm represents a very nice woman whose 2005 Toyota Camry first struck her son’s house when it accelerated on its own, an occurrence sometimes referred to as unintended acceleration. She took the car to Toyota, where it was examined it she was told that there was nothing wrong with the car, but maybe the floor mat caused the acceleration. To be sure she did not have any further problems our client took the mat out of the car and threw it in the trunk of the car. Nevertheless, she again experienced unintended acceleration of the car, this time striking her son’s office building. Toyota once again examined the car and stated there was nothing wrong with it.
Such assertions that there is nothing wrong with their cars, when there clearly is a problem, is nothing new for Toyota. In 2014, Toyota entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with the Department of Justice arising out of unintended acceleration problems with Toyota vehicles. In order to avoid criminal prosecution of officers or employees, Toyota agreed to a statement of facts admitting their deceit. The statements pointed out that Toyota “not only made misleading public statements to TOYOTA’s consumers, but also concealed from TOYOTA’s regulator one safety-related issue (a problem with accelerators getting stuck at partially depressed levels, referred to as ‘sticky pedal’) and minimized the scope of another (accelerators becoming entrapped at fully or near-fully depressed levels by improperly secured or incompatible floor mats, referred to as ‘floor mat entrapment’).”
“Contrary to public statements that TOYOTA made in late 2009 saying it had ‘addressed’ the ‘root cause’ of unintended acceleration through a limited safety recall addressing floor mat entrapment, TOYOTA had actually conducted internal tests revealing that certain of its unrecalled vehicles bore design features rendering them just as susceptible to floor mat entrapment as some of the recalled vehicles. And only weeks before these statements were made, individuals within TOYOTA had taken steps to hide from its regulator another type of unintended acceleration in its vehicles, separate and apart from floor mat entrapment: the sticky pedal problem.”
These are very, very serious safety problems that Toyota was not fully disclosing. In August 2009 a family of four was killed in San Diego, California, by unintended acceleration of a Lexus DS350.
“A 911 emergency call made from the out-of-control vehicle, which was speeding at over 100 miles per hour, reported, ‘We’re in a Lexus . . . and we’re going north on 125 and our accelerator is stuck . . . there’s no brakes . . . we’re approaching the intersection . . .Hold on . . . hold on and pray . . . pray. The call ended with the sound of the crash that killed everyone in the vehicle.”
So what did Toyota do? They lied about their unintended acceleration problems throughout 2009 and into 2010, coming clean only to stay out of prison. The Department of Justice collected fines in excess of a billion dollars (pocket change to Toyota) and Toyota proceeded on as usual. I for one think such conduct would come to a halt if executives were prosecuted. Obviously fines are not enough of a threat to stop such conduct.