Toyota accused of hiding tests

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Toyota accused of hiding tests

Lawsuit questions use of rollover-crash data

Laurence Viele Davidson / Bloomberg News

Toyota Motor Corp. may face demands that rollover-crash cases it won or settled be reopened, in light of accusations by a former company lawyer that the automaker hid records sought by plaintiffs.

The ex-Toyota lawyer, Dimitrios Biller, last month sued Toyota, claiming the world’s largest automaker and its U.S. units destroyed engineering and testing evidence relevant in more than 300 suits over sport utility vehicle rollover accidents. Biller managed Toyota’s electronic document-discovery program, he said in court papers.

The petition alleges conduct by Toyota that would cause every case ever resolved by Toyota in the past 10 years to be reopened, said Mikal Watts, a lawyer in Corpus Christi, Texas, referring to Biller’s suit.

Watts said Biller’s claims raise questions about the results of 10 other Toyota cases he handled. They include a trial he lost in Huntsville, Texas, over an accident that left a 6-year-old boy quadriplegic and dependent on a ventilator.

"A lot more information can be gleaned from electronic documents than paper," said Sean Kane, co-founder of the advocacy group Safety Research & Strategies in Rehoboth, Mass. "You are looking for who knew what and when."

Biller, 46, said he worked from 2003 to 2008 managing records for Toyota litigation. He suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown battling company executives and finally resigned after objecting to Toyota’s insistence on hiding data, he said in a July 24 complaint in federal court in Los Angeles.

Biller’s complaint alleges that Toyota has engaged in a "systematic pattern and practice of discovery abuses and criminal acts against plaintiffs in litigation" against it.

Toyota has 27 million vehicles on the road, and rollovers are a rare event, Toyota spokeswoman Sona Iliffe-Moon said in an e-mail.

Iliffe-Moon declined to comment on the specifics of Biller’s lawsuit or confirm his former status as national counsel for the Toyota rollover program. She also declined to comment on a $3.7 million settlement he said he received after claiming he was wrongfully discharged from Toyota.

The Biller suit represents a PR challenge to Toyota, said Jim Hossack, an analyst at the consulting firm AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, Calif., and a former engineer at carmakers including Ford Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co.

"Their reputation for quality and durability is very important to them," said Hossack. "These are very serious allegations. But Toyota has built up a lot of goodwill with consumers here."

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