The Toyota acceleration debacle that cost the company so much in terms of its previously sterling reputation is a curious one given how quickly it exploded onto the front page and how quickly it went away.
Harrowing tales of cars run amok grabbed headlines and prompted an immediate reaction by the company to try and contain the damaging news. The company released information soon after the first reports of acceleration trouble hit newspapers identifying the mats as the reason for the acceleration, saying that vehicles had incorrectly designed floor mats. Soon thereafter, Toyota advanced another theory, that sticky accelerator pedals were the reason for the sudden acceleration. Toyota shuffled the blame of this off onto the third party manufacturer of the items. Finally, yet another answer put forward by Toyota was that the accidents might have been caused by the drivers themselves who smashed the gas pedal when they intended to hit the brake pedal.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) took swift action and Toyota was forced to recall more than 8 million cars as well as pay more than $50 million in fines. Toyota’s president testified before a Congressional committee investigating the matter and lawsuits were filed in droves.
After all that seemed to reach a fever pitch, everything died down just as quickly. Toyota began quietly settling some of the mountain of cases and then commissioned several investigations into the matter which focused almost exclusively on the gas pedals and floor mats. A NHTSA investigation concluded the vehicles are now safe. Everything seemed to be over.
The question now is whether the situation was resolved or whether instead the company swept it under the rug. An investigation by Law.com found that a recent settlement with a group of consumers who owned impacted cars, but were never actually injured, was recently settled for a surprisingly high $1.3 billion, much more than many expected given the lack of physical harm. Other cases that were approaching trial settled quickly and at the last minute on confidential terms.
Even more curious is that experts in the car industry say that the sudden increase in complaints about acceleration issues cannot be explained by only floor mats and confused drivers, that there may be an electronic problem, something denied by Toyota.
Documents revealed by a translator who worked with several of the federal agencies investigating the acceleration issue have reopened the question of what really happened. Law.com had a panel of experts review the documents, and while no smoking gun was found, the panel agreed that there were serious doubts about what may have led to the acceleration issue.
One of the biggest problems uncovered in the recently revealed documents is just how little weight Toyota inspectors and engineers gave to consumer reports of trouble. In the vast majority of cases, engineers wrote off reports of accelerator issues as having to do with floor mats, despite very clear and contradictory reports from the drivers themselves. The documents show an inability on the part of Toyota investigators to believe that electronics could play a role in the problem. The documents show that engineers appeared to work backwards from the conclusion that the mats were the problem rather than actually investigate the reports with an open mind.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton & Favaloro personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.