DETROIT, Feb. 24 /PRNewswire/ — The U.S. House and Senate committee hearings scheduled for this week may help jump-start the discovery process for plaintiffs’ attorneys suing Toyota over alleged safety defects. Dramatic headlines are sure to follow as congressmen and senators grill executives. But the rush to judgment in Washington and the media won’t necessarily translate into adverse jury verdicts in civil and criminal complaints down the road, said Ed Higgins, co-head of the product liability practice group at Plunkett Cooney, one of the Midwest’s leading law firms.
“Toyota has admitted that breakdowns in its internal processes led to quality lapses, there have been some tragic accidents involving Toyota vehicles and the company’s communications shortcomings have cast doubt on the company’s candor with safety regulators and consumers,” Higgins said. “But we are far from knowing whether Toyota did anything improper within the scope of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act and state consumer protection statutes, or whether individual accidents were in fact caused by the apparent defects that are getting so much attention.”
Higgins said the safety act defines a defect as “a defect in performance, construction, a component or material of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment.” But for a defect to rise to the level of a safety-related defect and warrant a recall, it must present an unreasonable risk to the public. That qualifier gives manufacturers wide latitude to determine if a defect warrants a recall, based on its cause, frequency and possible impact on public safety. Only after that determination is made is a company required to notify regulators and begin the recall process.
For example, Toyota recalled certain vehicles for potential floor mat interference with accelerator pedals, but it pointedly told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that the company had not determined that a “safety-related defect” existed.
In addition, there is no statute or case law that establishes that certain failures, including defects that might lead to unintended acceleration, are per se a safety-related defect.
Also, there is a widely accepted legal doctrine that product improvements made over time to safety systems like brakes or throttles don’t automatically render previous generations inherently defective. This is a fundamentally important policy because, otherwise, manufacturers would be inherently discouraged from striving to design safer products.
Finally, documents produced for congressional investigators may not necessarily make it into evidence in pending civil and criminal cases. Toyota likely will file “motions in limine” to exclude them if they don’t directly bear on the allegations made, especially if they would be overly prejudicial to a jury.
“Toyota’s reputation will suffer this week, and it will be very hard for the company to defend itself in the hearing rooms in Washington,” Higgins said. “The best it can do is start the healing process with current and potential customers by showing humility, contrition and a company-wide resolve to fix internal processes and controls. Public acknowledgment of a problem and a firm commitment to an expedient and effective resolution won’t hurt its defense in civil or criminal cases, and the rules of engagement in the courtroom will help ensure that all relevant facts and laws are considered before a verdict is reached.”
About Plunkett Cooney
Established in 1913, Plunkett Cooney employs 150 attorneys in nine Michigan cities; Columbus, Ohio; and Indianapolis, Indiana. The firm has also received Martindale-Hubbell’s highest rating AV®, as well as awards and recognition for diversity, for law firm management innovation and for being considered among the top workplaces in Michigan.
Source: Plunkett Cooney