CHARLESTON -- The $16.4 million fine Toyota faces from the Transportation Department recently announced confirms the propriety of a class action complaint West Virginians recently filed against Toyota, said attorney for the class plaintiffs, a Charleston attorney says.
"As a practical matter, this (the fine) validates the legitimacy of the complaints being raised," Harry Bell said.
Lead class plaintiffs Ira Lee Dadisman and William R. and Virginia Lawson filed a lawsuit March 25 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.
Dadisman claims he purchased a 2007 Toyota Avalon in Charleston while class plaintiffs William R. and Virginia Lawson claim they purchased a 2010 Toyota Camry Hybrid in Beckley.
The plaintiffs say they never would have purchased their vehicles, though, had they known of their dangers and their diminished resale values.
They are referring to the widely publicized problems with gas pedals that cause sudden, unintended acceleration in some vehicles. Toyota, a company known for the safety and quality of its vehicles, attempted to hide problems in order to keep its good reputation in tact, the suit states.
"It appears the Toyota Defendants have elected to maintain this good reputation through a pattern and practice of deceiving customers about safety problems it has had with many of its automobiles," the complaint says. "Rather than being forthcoming about the nature and severity of manufacturing defects in their products, the Toyota Defendants have intentionally failed to disclose and have made numerous false statements to consumers to hide known manufacturing defects in its automobiles."
When consumers began to discover problems with their vehicles, Toyota tried to minimize them and may have attempted to conceal any documents that may have revealed its knowledge of the problems, the plaintiffs claim.
"In conjunction with the September 2009 recall, the Toyota Defendants also falsely indicated to consumers that the sole source of the risk of sudden unintended acceleration arose from potentially faulty floor mats when in fact Toyota knew of other potential risk factors, including but not limited to, mechanical design defects, problems with the electronic throttle control, the absence of a safety mechanism to cut fuel flow to the engine when the throttle is in the full open position but the brake pedal is fully depressed, or the possibility 'that certain accelerator pedal mechanisms may, in rare instances, mechanically stick."
Further, accident investigators have had a difficult time attempting to collect electronic information that may have pointed to the cause of the unintended acceleration because of Toyota's efforts to hamper investigations, according to the complaint.
"According to a Wall Street Journal article of February 16, 2010, most newer Toyota vehicles are equipped with event data recorders that record data such as vehicle speed and accelerator and brake positions," the suit states. "However, the article goes on to state that Toyota has only one device in the entire United States that is capable of reading data from the recorders, and that Toyota often combats efforts to use the data for accident investigations, stating that the device is not reliable for such use. However, the article points out that other auto makers are much more responsive to requests for the information and do not question its accuracy."
Most other car companies are much more willing to respond to investigators and safety issues, said Bell.
"An example is that Toyota in Japan had appeared to disband safety committees, something that other companies certainly have not done," he said.
Because of the problems with Toyota's recalled vehicles, their resale value could drop by 2.5 to 4.5 percent, the complaint says.
The plaintiffs allege violation of consumer protection statutes, breach of implied warranty and unjust enrichment against Toyota.
Anybody in West Viriginia who owns a recalled Toyota may join the class action suit.
The plaintiffs and putative class are seeking an order certifying the class action; an unspecified judgment; restitution, disgorgement, actual, statutory and punitive damages; a temporary and permanent restraining order for injunctive relief preventing the defendants from engaging in the business practices complained of in the suit; and other relief the court deems just.
Bell hopes the complaint against Toyota will spotlight customer issues and drive standards so that a proper balance is maintained.
"I would expect here this case will highlight how Toyota got sales and implementation of technologies into production overrode good design and manufacturing processes which they will need to bring back into balance," Bell said. "For those individual killed or harmed, it will cost Toyota a lot of money. For the millions of consumers who lost money now that the issues are getting exposed, we would hope Toyota will pay a fair financial recovery while at the same time confirming that there are various fixes which are implemented."
Bell and Jonathan W. Price of The Bell Law Firm in Charleston will be representing them.
U.S. District Court case number: 2:10-399