Toyota Motor Corp. was informed of sudden acceleration incidents verified by its own technicians and dealers at least six times dating back to 2003, according to documents filed Monday in two lawsuits against the automaker.
In one case, a Toyota technician reported taking a vehicle on a test drive after a customer complained of unwanted acceleration. The car “began to accelerate on its own,” as engine speed increased to 5,500 rpm from 1,500 rpm, reported the technician, who was able to stop the vehicle by applying the brakes, according to the filings.
The report was cited, along with several others, in new filings in federal court in Santa Ana by attorneys for motorists who claimed they owned Toyota and Lexus vehicles that had defects that could cause them to accelerate out of control. The incidents were culled from more than 40,000 internal Toyota documents reviewed by the attorneys.
Many of the documents were barred from public release because they contain personal information about the automaker’s customers, attorneys said.
However, attorneys for the plaintiffs referred to the records in two new civil complaints against Toyota. One seeks class-action status for vehicle owners claiming the value of their cars has diminished because of alleged defects; the other claims damages for motorists injured or killed in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration.
In a statement, Toyota said it looked forward to defending itself against the allegations.
“Toyota has identified two specific mechanical causes of potential unintended acceleration in some of its vehicles and has moved decisively to address these issues with effective and durable solutions,” the statement said. “Toyota rejects claims that plaintiffs suffered economic damages because of the recent recalls.”
The company added that “no credible scientific theory or proof has been advanced to support” claims that unintended acceleration was related to vehicles’ electronics.
The new complaints describe six incidents, between 2003 and 2010, of sudden acceleration documented and verified by Toyota service technicians and others. All of the records detailing those events have been barred from public view to protect the personal data, because of the court restrictions, and thus the complaints did not provide specific information such as the date of the event or the model involved.
The new allegations form part of the argument that the automaker was aware of defects that caused its vehicles to suddenly accelerate but that it avoided acknowledging or correcting the problem until it became the focus of investigations by regulators and Congress starting last fall.
“They had an absolute duty to disclose to consumers there were safety issues,” said Steve Berman, an attorney representing plaintiffs in the economic damages lawsuit. “They should have immediately halted production or done a recall so that there could be some fail-safe put on these vehicles.”
The automaker, which has issued more than 11 million recall notices since last fall, has acknowledged that sticking gas pedals or floor mat entrapment can cause sudden acceleration but has denied isolating any other potential defects, including electronic or software problems. In April, Toyota agreed to pay a record $16.4-million fine for delaying a recall of vehicles with gas pedals that could stick.
Toyota has been targeted in hundreds of lawsuits from vehicle owners alleging sudden acceleration. In April, many of those suits were consolidated into two federal cases and assigned to U.S. District Court Judge James Selna. The suits name several dozen plaintiffs, but attorneys in the economic damages case said that as many as 40 million Toyota owners could be members of the class.
In May, Selna ordered Toyota to give the plaintiffs’ lawyers thousands of documents it had already supplied to Congress.
In addition to the acceleration reports, the complaints cite records indicating that Toyota executives went to great lengths to avoid public disclosure of company concerns about the issue.
One, for example, quotes a February 2007 e-mail from a Toyota official describing plans to exclude a knowledgeable Japanese engineer from meeting with regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“If the engineer who knows the failures well attends the meeting, NHTSA will ask a bunch of questions about the [electronic control unit]” on the vehicle, the e-mail, written by Michiteru Kato, said. “I want to avoid such situations.”
Elsewhere, the lawsuits cite examples of company officials’ discussing implementation of a brake override safety system as early as 2007, even though Toyota did not begin adopting the technology until late last year.
In addition, it alleges that Toyota pushed hard against NHTSA investigations of sudden acceleration, and strove to ensure that no defects were identified by the agency.
For example, Toyota was able to close a 2007 probe of sudden acceleration in the Lexus ES and Camry by recalling floor mats in roughly 55,000 vehicles.
“We will ‘recall’ the ’07 ES and Camry floor mat, however, we will NOT declare that a ‘safety defect’ exist in either the vehicles or the mat,” wrote Chris Tinto, a Toyota employee in Washington, in a Sept. 14, 2007, e-mail.
“We estimate that had the agency instead pushed hard for recall of the throttle pedal assembly (for instance), we would be looking at upwards of $100M+ in unnecessary cost,” Tinto said in the e-mail to a superior.
Late last year, Toyota acknowledged that the design of the pedal could contribute to floor mat entrapment and has been modifying or replacing the assembly on millions of vehicles.
“NHTSA is currently investigating whether Toyota violated the law leading up to its recent recalls,” said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair. “The agency has obtained and is reviewing more than 600,000 pages of documents from Toyota to determine what the automaker knew about the existence of safety defects and when.”
The documents referenced in Monday’s filings provided fresh evidence that Toyota’s own technicians authenticated sudden acceleration years before the problem became an international crisis for the automaker.
According to the lawsuits, a Toyota technician sent the company a report on May 5, 2003, confirming “sudden acceleration against our intention” as a result of “miss-synchronism between engine speed and throttle position movement.”
Despite replacing parts in the vehicle, the problem continued, prompting the technician to call it an “extremely dangerous problem” and express concern that “we are also much afraid of the frequency of this problem in the near future.” The author of the report, as well as the model of vehicle, was not disclosed.
A separate report from a Toyota dealer regarding a 2005 Sequoia verified two such acceleration incidents, pointing to a “software issue of the engine control unit” as a likely cause.
The sudden acceleration problem gained national attention last August when Mark Saylor, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer, along with three members of his family were killed when a Lexus ES they were traveling in accelerated out of control and crashed near San Diego.
An e-mail sent by Koji Sakakibara, a Japanese Toyota employee, on Sept. 1, 2009, just days after Saylor’s death, discusses the need for brake override and the potential for floor mat entrapment of accelerator pedals, according to the lawsuit. The e-mail also warned of an official backlash.
“NHTSA is furious over Toyota’s handling of things,” the e-mail said, indicating that the company’s public relations department “thinks that ‘the NHTSA and USA public already hold very harsh opinions in regards to Toyota.’ ”
Sometimes in the U.S., the e-mail continued, “killing a police officer means the death penalty.”