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How Has News of Toyota Settling Hundreds of Personal Injury Claims Managed to Essentially Fly Under the Radar?

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In January of 2011, Reuters reported that eight automobile insurance companies sued Toyota Motor Corporation, claiming that multiple accidents were the result of a defect causing unintended acceleration among various Toyota vehicles. Allstate Insurance was the first company to file a suit against the car manufacturer, with seven additional firms following their lead by collectively seeking compensatory damages. 

Around the same time that the aforementioned lawsuits were filed, news that Toyota agreed to pay a $10 million personal injury claim for a 2009 fatal car accident involving California state trooper, Mark Saylor, and his three relatives came to light. Those four fatalities, and the resulting settlement, were said to have impelled Toyota to move forward with pertinent recalls to the unintended acceleration issue. The recall was estimated to have impacted 5.4 million vehicles in the U.S. alone. 

Despite settling the multi-million dollar personal injury case and instituting a widespread recall, Toyota maintained total denial in response to the allegations, deeming them to be “completely unfounded.” 

As it turns out, the unintended acceleration issue was not solved via said recall, and a handful of personal injury lawsuits filed by drivers of Toyota vehicles, some of whom sustained catastrophic injuries, remain open. Considering that one of the first reported incidents occurred in 2009, how has Toyota managed to evade significant scrutiny from the press (let alone the public) over the course of a decade? It’s hard to fathom, especially considering that as the years have transpired, Toyota has continued to settle personal injury claims.

A 2013 article from Cars.com reported that Toyota would pay $29 million in settlements to “29 states and one U.S. territory resulting from claims that the automaker concealed information about its unintended acceleration recalls in 2009 and 2010.” Additionally, the Detroit News reported that Toyota was in effect prohibited from advertising the safety of its vehicles without “sound engineering and scientific data to back such claims.” But Toyota’s legal woes did not stop there. 

In 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hit the car company with $48.8 million in civil penalties citing a “failure to recall vehicles in a timely manner.” In December of 2012, after yet another delayed recall — this one affecting the Lexus RX SUV, which is a part of Toyota’s luxury division — the NHTSA handed down an additional $17.35 million fine. 

Furthermore, and perhaps more shocking, is the fact that Toyota’s history of unintended acceleration issues actually began in 2002, when several consumers filed petitions to the NHSTA. Initially, the NHSTA found no statistical significance to support the claims. But in 2007, the first verified claim of unintended acceleration was found via an engineering analysis that demonstrated how unsecured all-weather mats could lead to pedal entrapment, resulting in drivers accelerating in excess of 90 miles per hour with decreased braking power. But rather than immediately addressing the matter directly, Toyota proceeded to act nefariously and without regard for their consumers.

According to Wikipedia, in 2013, Betsy Benjaminson, a freelance translator working for Toyota on internal documents, blew the proverbial whistle on the company’s shenanigans. Benjaminson released a personal statement about an alleged Toyota cover up meant to prevent the sudden unintended acceleration problem from becoming public knowledge. Benjaminson stated that she: 

“Read many descriptions by executives and managers of how they [Toyota] had hoodwinked regulators, courts, and even Congress, by withholding, omitting, or misstating facts.” She also referenced company press releases that she claimed were intended to “maintain public belief in the safety of Toyota’s cars despite providing no evidence to support those reassurances.” After her public statements, Benjaminson named herself as an official whistleblower and confirmed that she had been providing evidence to Iowa Senator, Charles Grassley. 

Benjaminson’s leaking of internal documents incited a criminal investigation by the FBI and the Justice Department commencing in 2010. By 2014, the DOJ announced criminal charges against Toyota via a deferred prosecution agreement with a “$1.2 billion criminal penalty for issuing misleading and deceptive statements to its consumers and federal regulators, as well as hiding another cause of unintended acceleration, the sticky pedal, from the NHTSA.”  At the time, the figure represented the largest criminal fine against an automaker in US history. And yet, that specific fine wasn’t the only billion-dollar judgment levied against Toyota.  

In 2013, a federal judge approved a settlement valued at $1.6 billion in favor of Toyota owners who claimed a reduced value effect on their cars resulting from negative connotations related to the unintended acceleration issue. Additionally, Toyota was forced to pay a total of $66.2 million in fines to the Department of Transportation for improperly handling the recalls, and $25.5 million to their shareholders whose stock lost value, seemingly on account of said recalls. All told, since 2014, approximately 537 wrongful death and personal injury cases have been privately — and some might go so far as to say quietly — settled by Toyota as a result of the unintended acceleration issue. Nevertheless, despite former Attorney General, Eric Holder’s, contention that, “Rather than promptly disclosing and correcting safety issues about which they were aware, Toyota made misleading public statements to consumers and gave inaccurate facts to members of Congress,” the company has never admitted liability. 

The full amount of the personal injury settlements Toyota has been forced to pay will remain unknown, as all plaintiffs awarded a settlement are required by the company to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Perhaps that is one rationale for how, despite the alarming statistics and brazen disregard for public safety, Toyota has managed to maintain a mostly positive public image. Statista.com reports that the company’s global vehicle sales equated to around 10.6 million for the fiscal year of 2019. Moreover, Carsalebase.com reports that Toyota’s market share has risen from 10.93% in 2011 (near the height of the recall) to 12.28% in 2018. They remain the number one Japanese manufacturer of cars in the United States. 

When one considers how Toyota has maintained success despite the sort of negative information that might upend another company’s virtual existence, you have to question whether it’s a matter of savvy Public Relations, or sheer ignorance on the part of the public. 

However, one silver lining that could be procured from this particular story is the fact that, following Toyota’s alleged negligence, government entities are said to have become more vigilant in enforcing recalls intended to protect the public. Let’s hope that, despite Toyota managing to emerge relatively unscathed from personal injury accidents that resulted in significant injuries as well as fatalities, the company views the imposed fines and settlements as a lesson for the future.