Toyota ‘sudden acceleration’: CA-born scam costs firm billions

Toyota ‘sudden acceleration’: CA-born scam costs firm billions

PriusSharkFinThere are multiple reports that Toyota is about to pay nearly a $1 billion fine to the U.S. government for accidents related to the unintended acceleration of its vehicles, a story that went national after two incidents in San Diego in 2009 and 2010. In the first, an off-duty CHP officer and three family members were killed when their loaner Lexus went out of control; in the second, the CHP had to use a car to stop a speeding Prius.

This led to dozens of stories in the Los Angeles Times that described a series of similar cases involving Toyota and alleged a coverup of the accidents and serious problems with Toyota’s engineering and vehicle design. But there’s a gigantic problem with this story.

The case of the death of the CHP officer involved a misplaced floor mat pinning down the accelerator — not Toyota’s fault. The Prius case by all evidence appears to be a fraud by a con artist — not Toyota’s fault. And as some iconoclastic journalists pointed out as the case was unfolding, nearly all the cases involved elderly drivers who are far more prone to driver error such as hitting the wrong foot pedal.

In the L.A. Times’ first huge takeout on the controversy, here are the ages of the drivers involved in the incidents the newspaper cited (for some incidents, it didn’t offer any ages): 60, 61, 63, 68, 71, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89.

How odd — Toyotas are prejudiced against older drivers!

When government regulators use trial-lawyer dirty tricks

Forbes treats this scandal with the brisk contempt it deserves:

“The evidence strongly suggests [driver error is] what’s behind most cases of unintended acceleration involving Toyota vehicles. … the government has failed to find any evidence of an electronic or mechanical problem to explain why Toyota vehicles have accelerated out of control. There is a politically incorrect explanation: Age. The gremlin inside Toyota’s electronics seems designed to attack people over the age of 60, including the 76-year-old woman who convinced an Oklahoma jury to hit Toyota for $3 million over an accident that killed her 70-year-old passenger.

“Now the Wall Street Journal reports Toyota is close to paying $1 billion to settle a federal criminal investigation into its alleged failure to report the alleged incidents of unintended acceleration that federal authorities have already concluded mostly resulted from operator error. This comes after Toyota agreed to pay more than $1 billion to settle private suits based on the novel theory that Toyota owners had suffered economic damages because their cars were worth less after plaintiff lawyers spread reports of an electronic defect that caused unintended acceleration. Which the government failed to find.

“If this all sounds a little crazy, get used to it. We are now firmly in the era of regulation by legal intimidation … . Regulators, prosecutors and attorneys general have learned a valuable lesson from their private counterparts, class-action attorneys. Build a big enough case, and the target company will settle. The alternative can be fiduciary suicide: Risking the entire net worth of the company on a jury’s whim.

“The Oklahoma jury that determined it was Toyota’s fault that a 76-year-old woman crashed her car exiting the highway demonstrates the stakes. That verdict, if upheld to judgment, might have provided the precedent requiring Toyota to admit fault in thousands of other cases.”

The L.A. Times abets a dishonest scam

While the Times, to its credit, has acknowledged those who doubt Toyota is to blame for these problems, most of its reporting skips over the lack of hard evidence that Toyota is at fault. Nor do LATers acknowledge that if Toyota is not to blame, the automaker can’t be accused of a coverup of these accidents.

Anti-business business columnist Michael Hiltzik is typical.

What’s unfortunate about this is that one of last year’s Pulitzer awards hinted we could finally be seeing journalists appreciating and using the scientific method to ferret out scoops. The Sun Sentinel of South Florida used records from toll stops to document outrageous behavior by local law-enforcement officers:

“A three-month … investigation found almost 800 cops from a dozen agencies speeding 90 to 130 mph on our highways.

“Many weren’t even on-duty — they were commuting to and from work in their take-home patrol cars.”

If the Times had relied on such hard evidence instead of trusting anecdotes shaped by remora-like lawyers peddling oh-the-humanity horror-story myths about malfunctioning Toyotas, its coverage would have been a lot different.

Remember, modern vehicles are festooned with gadgets and gauges measuring their performance. Federal regulators looking at the Toyotas involved in these sudden-acceleration cases closely scrutinized these gadgets and gauges — and found no evidence Toyota was at fault in even one case.

If that’s not the lede of any story about this mess, it’s a comment on journalists’ innumeracy and love of a splashy scandal. Pathetic.

 



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