I was a guest Tuesday on the Roger Hedgecock program at the San Diego Union-Tribune, discussing the way Washington, D.C. seems to have come down at least as hard on Toyota as on General Motors, maybe harder, even though the safety shortcomings falsely attributed to Toyota appear actually to be present in the GM case.
One striking feature of the GM story is the extent to which a culture of putting as little as possible on paper appears to have undermined GM’s capability to grasp the scope of the safety problem with the flimsy ignitions and their relationship to nonfunctional airbags. Bill Vlasic of the New York Times reports:
To the legal department at General Motors, secrecy ruled. Employees were discouraged from taking notes in meetings. Workers’ emails were examined once a year for sensitive information that might be used against the company. G.M. lawyers even kept their knowledge of fatal accidents related to a defective ignition switch from their own boss, the company’s general counsel, Michael P. Millikin.
As I’ve often noted, organizations gripped by fear of legal consequences or hostile oversight often develop a “put as little as possible on paper” mentality, even though such a mentality regularly proves counterproductive to the organization’s mission by fostering ignorance and lack of coordination and allowing bad practice to take root.
Popular radio host Mike Rosen had me on his program last week to talk about the Justice Department’s aggressive use of criminal law against the Japanese automaker (earlier here). Also check out Canadian columnist Terence Corcoran’s view: “Intended media acceleration and the assault on Toyota” [Financial Post]
Imagine how much they might have gotten if the cars had actually been suddenly accelerating! “Do We Really Want To Regulate This Way?” asks Daniel Fisher [Forbes]
Lawyers have taken unintended-acceleration cases to trial on a variety of theories, including pedal placement and lack of brake override, but have not had much success in arguing that electronic gremlins inhabit the vehicle and that the driver was correctly pressing the brake. Has their luck changed with an Oklahoma jury’s new verdict? The Japanese automaker doesn’t seem to want to take chances, and promptly settled the case, represented on the plaintiff’s side by Montgomery, Ala.’s Beasley Allen. [National Law Journal, The Truth About Cars; Peter Huber on the Audi scare a quarter-century ago] Commenter at TTAC: “I’d like to see this happen with a jury of engineers.” More: Mass Tort Prof.
“A jury cleared Toyota Motor Corp. of liability Thursday in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a Southern California woman killed in a 2009 crash that occurred amid widespread reports of unintended acceleration involving Toyota vehicles.” Despite regular hints in places like the Los Angeles Times that undetected electronic defects might be to blame for sudden acceleration, lawyers for Uno’s family went to trial on the more prosaic theory that Toyota was wrong not to have included a brake override system in the car as an added help to drivers who might be unable to correct a depressed gas pedal. A jury disagreed. [AP/NBC Los Angeles; L.A. Times]
Coyote wonders about the contrast between the frantic, America-in-crisis media and political coverage of an imaginary Toyota sudden acceleration glitch and the considerably mellower reception given an alleged safety hazard in Chevy Volts, put out by government-sponsored General Motors.
John Cook at Gawker wants to know how a coveted Edward R. Murrow prize could just have been bestowed on the Toyota-panic reporting of ABC’s Brian Ross (“America’s Wrongest Reporter”), given that it showcased staged, fakey footage, relied heavily on the assertions of a safety consultant whose plaintiff’s-side involvement in the controversy went unmentioned, and omitted details that would have raised readers’ doubts on key themes, among many other sins. Later investigations, of course, decisively refuted the lawyer-stoked fears that Toyotas have some mysterious tendency to accelerate out of control. More: Ted Frank and Hans Bader, and my take on the sad history of media irresponsibility on car-safety scares.
I explain at Cato at Liberty.
P.S. Also, welcome listeners from Richmond, Va.’s WRVA, which had me on to discuss these issues this morning. And a retrospective on the Toyota scare from The Truth About Cars’ Edward Niedermeyer.
Ed Wallace at Bloomberg Business Week tells why the Toyota sudden-acceleration debacle merely replays a long and sad history:
I don’t mean to single out CBS for criticism. Plenty of other media outlets share the blame. For 30 years they have treated us to Jeep, Suzuki, and Isuzu Trooper rollovers, Audi unintended acceleration, side-saddle gas tanks exploding, police cars catching on fire, Firestone tires blowing out, and then the Toyota case. And each time the media took the word of those with a vested financial interest in the outcome—and every time they got burned for doing so.
I wrote about this in my article “It Didn’t Start With Dateline NBC” and in the chapter “Trial Lawyer TV” of my book The Rule of Lawyers.
Plus: For comic relief, here’s a New York Times editorial claiming the findings “did nothing to dispel concerns” about safety. And welcome listeners of Ray Dunaway’s morning show on WTIC (Hartford).
It’s basically the same message that leaked out seven months ago. In a new post at Cato at Liberty, I raise some questions about why it took so long to release the study results.
More: Jalopnik, Coyote, Marc Hodak, Rick Woldenberg/AmendTheCPSIA, Dan Fisher/Forbes, Dan Bigman/Forbes (LaHood: “no defect, but we’ll regulate the industry anyway”); Carter Wood/ShopFloor and more, Ted Frank/PoL (class action over loss of resale value continues), New York Times, Leonard Evans/AOL. My March 2010 National Review piece “Exorcising Toyota’s Demons” is here. And welcome readers from Instapundit, Charlie Martin/PJ Tatler, Pejman Yousefzadeh, Roger Donway/Atlas Society, Ira Stoll/Future of Capitalism.
Unable to show any electronic flaw in the vehicles, plaintiff’s lawyers switch to the theory that the automaker should have embraced “brake override” technology that disengages the throttle when the brake is applied. That technology doesn’t work, of course, if the driver is in fact mistakenly hitting the accelerator when intending to hit the brake — which was what happened in earlier sudden-acceleration scares, and looks likely to be the cause of most of the Toyota incidents as well. [L.A. Times]
We know some consumer reporters can be easy marks for overhyped scare stories. But what excuse does a giant insurance company has for trying to knock spare change out of an automaker by endorsing the scare theories in a subrogation suit? [Mary Anne Medina, Claims Magazine] See also: Laura Zois, Maryland Accident Lawyer.
Not for the first (or fifty-first) time, the California paper acts as an uncritical stenographer of Litigation Lobby claims — then waits until paragraph 13 to advise readers that NHTSA, not exactly the friendliest witness these days, backs the automaker’s position on the question of the “black box” data. More: AP.
The Washington Post — unlike some other newspapers we might think of — doesn’t mind letting its editorial stance catch up with the facts on the ground as they appear to NHTSA staff. We’ve been on the story for quite a while.
After criticism for not releasing the results of its probe, the administration concedes that NHTSA has found little or no support for the trial lawyers’ electronic-gremlins theory. [USA Today, WSJ, L.A. Times, earlier here, here, etc.]
A new report in the WSJ quotes a retiring NHTSA official as saying higher-ups are refusing to release the results of the agency’s staff investigation into charges of Toyota sudden acceleration, because those findings are not unfavorable enough toward the automaker. I’ve got more detail in a new post at Cato at Liberty, and Ted covers the story at PoL.
Meanwhile, proponents of a sweeping expansion of federal auto safety law, one that would thrust Washington much more deeply into the operations of the automotive industry, are really in a hurry — a quick, urgent, must-do-now hurry — to pass it, even though many of its provisions have not had much airing in public debate. An editorial today in the New York Times — a newspaper that almost comically underplayed the revelations earlier this month about the NHTSA probe’s pro-Toyota results — flatly asserts that the Japanese automaker’s vehicles suffer “persistent problems of uncontrolled acceleration,” and demands that the sweeping new legislation “be passed into law without delay.” It’s almost as if they are afraid of what might happen if lawmakers pause to take a closer look.
Among the many other things the new legislation would do is greatly enhance the legal leverage of automaker or dealership employees who adopt the mantle of “whistleblowers”. But if the new revelations from a responsible career employee of NHTSA are ignored, we will have another confirmation that some types of whistleblowing are more welcome in America’s governing class than others. (& welcome Coyote, Gabriel Malor, Death by 1000 Papercuts, Mark Hemingway/D.C. Examiner (“the indispensable Overlawyered blog”), Allen McDuffee/Think Tanked readers).
Years ago I promised myself that I’d stop wading into comments sections, but my breach of that promise today in a trial-lawyer blog attacking me for pointing out the truth about the bogus Toyota sudden acceleration claims might amuse some readers, and I might as well get a post out of it.
“Are not companies obligated to make the safest vehicle possible?”
The safest vehicle possible is a Sherman tank with a restrictor plate preventing it from exceeding 1 mph, so the answer to your question is “no”—though certainly trial lawyers have an interest in asking you to think manufacturers are doing something wrong when they don’t.
“Until Toyota can identify the exact cause of these accidents (besides the too-convenient driver error) anything and everything is in question and must be investigated.”
I look forward to you writing NHTSA and demanding they investigate if invisible vampires are causing elderly drivers to hit the wrong pedal. After all, anything and everything is in question, and you reject Occam’s Razor when it comes to an alleged electronic defect that simultaneously causes three separate systems to malfunction six times more often for elderly drivers than non-elderly drivers, so why not demand an investigation of the equally unlikely invisible-vampire problem as long as you’re rejecting science?
I’ve got a new post up at Cato at Liberty on the new report that NHTSA investigators found no electronic flaws in the cars and extensive evidence of driver error. Ted’s post yesterday is below. Press coverage of yesterday’s numbers: USA Today, Bloomberg (Litigation Lobby figure Joan Claybrook doubles down on gotta-be-electronics line), Boston Globe (& welcome The Week readers).