Toyota Withheld Evidence, Lawmaker Charges

Toyota has been accused of withholding evidence in lawsuits filed by people injured in crashes that involved Toyota vehicles. The allegations were made by U.S. Representative Edolphus Towns (D-NY), Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in a letter to Yoshimi Inaba, President and CEO, Toyota North America.

According to the letter, a review of documents obtained under subpoena from a former senior lawyer at Toyota indicate the automaker deliberately withheld records that it was legally required to produce in response to discovery orders in litigation. Many of these documents concern “rollover” cases in which a driver or passenger was injured, including cases where victims were paralyzed. The former lawyer, Dimitrios Biller, was Managing Counsel in the Product Liability Group of Toyota Motor Sales, USA (TMS), from April 2003 to September 2007. According to Rep. Towns’ letter, Biller led the defense of some of the largest tort cases filed against Toyota, including “rollover” cases involving seriously injured victims.

As we’ve reported previously, Biller filed his own lawsuit against Toyota in July, claiming Toyota conspired to withhold evidence in the rollover cases and forced him to resign when he told the company it had a legal duty to release evidence to plaintiffs’ attorneys.

According to a press release issued by Towns, the committee’s review of Biller’s documents revealed multiple references to secret “Books of Knowledge” that were kept in electronic form, in which Toyota engineers kept their design and testing data across all vehicle lines and for all vehicle parts. Towns said the committee now has evidence that Toyota entered into multi-million dollar settlements in lawsuits where they feared that the plaintiff’s lawyer was getting close to discovering the existence of the “Books of Knowledge.”

Among the documents Biller supplied to the committee is an e-mail he wrote in which he agreed to a $1.5 million settlement in 2006 to avoid disclosure in a roll-over case. He also warned that the company needed to keep better track of cases of unintended acceleration.

“In sum, the Biller documents indicate a systematic disregard for the law and routine violation of court discovery orders in litigation. People injured in crashes involving Toyota vehicles may have been injured a second time when Toyota failed to produce relevant evidence in court,” Towns wrote in his letter to Inaba. “Moreover, this also raises very serious questions as to whether Toyota has also withheld substantial, relevant information from NHTSA.”

Towns has asked Inaba to review Biller’s records and provide a response to his allegations by noon on Friday, March 12, 2010.

Since September, Toyota has recalled nearly 8 million vehicles worldwide for issues involving unintended acceleration. The recalls have seriously injured Toyota’s long-standing reputation for quality and reliability. Toyota has also been strongly criticized for what many see as a slow response to the unintended acceleration problem. Last week, Inaba and Toyota President Akio Toyoda testified before Towns’ committee regarding the recalls and Toyota’s recent safety lapses.

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