National

Inquiry finds Toyota employed questionable legal tactics

MIAMI — Toyota has routinely engaged in questionable, evasive and possibly deceptive 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 country 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."

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 defense attorneys play hardball, but it's a violation to claim evidence does not exist when it does.

Similar claims have been lodged by Dimitrios Biller, a former Toyota attorney who sued the company in August, contending it withheld evidence in considerably older rollover cases.

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

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."

The dozens of lawsuits reviewed by the AP, spanning the past decade, dealt with allegations of vehicle rollovers, faulty air bag deployments, defective transmissions, bad brakes and crashes blamed on sudden acceleration — the issue at the heart of the company's current recall of some 8 million vehicles worldwide. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has linked 52 deaths to accelerator-related crashes.

Additional related lawsuits examined in the AP review found:

* Toyota hid the existence of its roof strength tests in numerous cases. A new potential class-action lawsuit filed in California on behalf of two women left paralyzed by separate Toyota rollover crashes contends that recently uncovered company documents contradict sworn testimony by Toyota officials that the company had no written standard for how far vehicle roofs could be crushed. The long-hidden documents indicate Toyota did have such a standard: Roofs could come no closer than a half-millimeter from test dummies' heads in a rollover crash.

* Toyota claimed in court documents that a 2000 Camry had "no component" to record its speed at the time of a crash. A Texas woman suing the automaker asserted she was injured when the air bag failed to deploy. The case went to trial last September and ended with a jury ruling in Toyota's favor.

The attorney, Stephen Van Gaasbeck of San Antonio, later found documents showing the Camry did record such information and that Toyota had the ability to download it from vehicles as early as 1997.

Attorneys who regularly defend corporate clients say it's common for plaintiffs' lawyers to complain they are not receiving the information they need and that Toyota's tactics do not necessarily indicate nefarious intent.

"It's always a battle in these big cases between plaintiffs and corporations as to what documents they have and whether or not they produce everything they should have," said Matthew Cairns, president-elect of the 22,500-member DRI-Voice of the Defense Bar group of civil defense attorneys. "Plaintiffs always try to get more, hoping to find something. It's for the court to ultimately resolve who is right."

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."

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 defense attorneys play hardball, but it's a violation to claim evidence does not exist when it does.

Similar claims have been lodged by Dimitrios Biller, a former Toyota attorney who sued the company in August, contending it withheld evidence in considerably older rollover cases.

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

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."

The dozens of lawsuits reviewed by the AP, spanning the past decade, dealt with allegations of vehicle rollovers, faulty air bag deployments, defective transmissions, bad brakes and crashes blamed on sudden acceleration — the issue at the heart of the company's current recall of some 8 million vehicles worldwide. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has linked 52 deaths to accelerator-related crashes.

Additional related lawsuits examined in the AP review found:

* Toyota hid the existence of its roof strength tests in numerous cases. A new potential class-action lawsuit filed in California on behalf of two women left paralyzed by separate Toyota rollover crashes contends that recently uncovered company documents contradict sworn testimony by Toyota officials that the company had no written standard for how far vehicle roofs could be crushed. The long-hidden documents indicate Toyota did have such a standard: Roofs could come no closer than a half-millimeter from test dummies' heads in a rollover crash.

* Toyota claimed in court documents that a 2000 Camry had "no component" to record its speed at the time of a crash. A Texas woman suing the automaker asserted she was injured when the air bag failed to deploy. The case went to trial last September and ended with a jury ruling in Toyota's favor.

The attorney, Stephen Van Gaasbeck of San Antonio, later found documents showing the Camry did record such information and that Toyota had the ability to download it from vehicles as early as 1997.

Attorneys who regularly defend corporate clients say it's common for plaintiffs' lawyers to complain they are not receiving the information they need and that Toyota's tactics do not necessarily indicate nefarious intent.

"It's always a battle in these big cases between plaintiffs and corporations as to what documents they have and whether or not they produce everything they should have," said Matthew Cairns, president-elect of the 22,500-member DRI-Voice of the Defense Bar group of civil defense attorneys. "Plaintiffs always try to get more, hoping to find something. It's for the court to ultimately resolve who is right."

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