This month, federal regulators announced a second investigation into Toyota’s conduct surrounding the discovery of defects in its vehicles. This time, the regulators are again probing whether Toyota willfully delayed before notifying the U.S. government of a problem. The Chicago car accident attorneys of Passen & Powell are troubled to hear yet another story of a manufacturer putting its own interests before the safety of its customers and the public.
The current investigation centers on a problem with the steering system in sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks. The steering problem affects around a million vehicles, including Toyota 4Runner SUVs, Toyota T100 pickups, and other Toyota pickups manufactured from 1989 through 1998. The steering rod on these vehicles (which connects the steering wheel to the wheels) could become worn and break. The driver would then be unable to control the vehicle. This defect has already caused at least 15 crashes, seven injuries and three deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s other recent investigation into Toyota’s practices resulted in a fine of almost seventeen million dollars. That investigation centered around the much-publicized “sticky pedals” in many Toyota cars, which cause the vehicles to continue accelerating even after a driver removes her foot from the accelerator and applies the brakes. The agency concluded that the company waited at least four months before notifying the authorities of this defect, thus endangering countless lives so that the company could prepare its publicity campaign. The $16.4 million fine represents the full amount allowed under U.S. law, and was the largest ever imposed on an automaker by the U.S. government.
In the case of the steering defect, Toyota issued a recall in the U.S. in 2005. It issued a similar recall in Japan, however, nearly a year earlier. It is difficult to understand how the U.S. authorities did not pick up on the problem sooner, in light of the Japanese recall. But regardless, the Japanese recall provides compelling evidence that Toyota was aware of the danger well before it informed U.S. safety authorities and issued a recall. U.S. law, however, requires vehicle manufacturers such as Toyota to notify authorities within five days of learning of a dangerous defect. Toyota’s failure to comply with the law is further evidence that its behavior was, at the very least, negligent. Those injured by the faulty vehicles may thus have a case against the company for personal injury or wrongful death.
Toyota’s excuse for its behavior rings hollow. Toyota claims that it was unaware that the problem was present outside of Japan, and that even if it was, U.S. drivers’ different needs and habits would prevent the steering columns from breaking in the U.S. For example, Toyota asserts that Japanese drivers do more detailed maneuvering, such as parking in narrow spaces, and thus put more stain on their steering columns. The NHTSA, however, has learned that Toyota received at least 41 complaints filed by U.S. consumers even before the Japanese recall was issued. It was this information that led the agency to open the investigation.
The NHTSA learned of the pre-recall U.S. complaints to Toyota only through private civil litigation. The agency was informed of the complaints by an attorney representing an Idaho teenager killed when his Toyota pickup crashed. Although the accident occurred in 2007, the family of the slain teen filed a lawsuit against Toyota, claiming that they never received notice of the recall. It was this lawsuit that uncovered evidence of the complaints, and thus of Toyota’s failure to inform the U.S. government and consumers of a known safety defect.
This only illustrates, yet again, how important civil litigation is in ensuring consumer safety. Again and again, the evidence demonstrates that corporate powers will not act honorably and protect the safety of the public unless forced to do so. Products liability attorneys play an important role in protecting innocent consumers – and those in the path of their vehicles. Without the instrument of a wrongful death suit, the NHTSA would never have learned of Toyota’s misconduct, and Toyota would not have been penalized for its appalling conduct and deception. If you have been injured by a vehicle malfunction, it is important for you to take action, not only to be compensated for your injuries, but to ensure that those at fault are forced to face the consequences of their actions. Perhaps if enough suits are brought, companies will begin to consider the safety of their customers before needless injuries and deaths occur.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago personal injury lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.