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sudden acceleration

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]

Last week the Department of Justice announced a deal with Toyota in which the Japanese automaker would fork over $1.2 billion and place itself under supervision for allegedly not being forthcoming enough with information at the height of the 2009-2010 panic over claims of unintended acceleration in its cars. The acceleration claims themselves had turned out to be almost entirely bogus, and were refuted in a report from the federal government’s own expert agency, NHTSA. Instead, the prosecution relied on a single count of wire fraud: Toyota had supposedly given regulators, Congress and the public an erroneously positive view of its safety efforts. It should therefore have to “forfeit” a huge sum supposedly related to the volume of business it did over a relevant period.

I’ve got an opinion piece in Monday’s Wall Street Journal (unpaywalled Cato version here, related Cato post here) about this whole appalling affair, which should frighten other businesses that might face draconian charges in future not just for compliance infractions, but more broadly for defending their products in the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s grandstanding and demagogic press release goes to some lengths to leave the impression “that unintended acceleration is some mysterious phenomenon of auto design unrelated to flooring the accelerator.” Someone here is irresponsibly misleading the motoring public and withholding vital safety information, but it’s not Toyota.

A few related links: NHTSA unintended acceleration report, Car & Driver’s coverage, and my 2010 opinion piece. And Holman Jenkins at the WSJ (paywalled) compares the still-unfolding story of ignition problems at GM, also discussed by Paul Barrett at Business Week.

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It’s behind a paywall, but the WSJ columnist looks into a question touched on repeatedly in this space and connects it to the unpredictability with which juries may credit expert testimony, as an Oklahoma jury recently did in Toyota litigation:

Toyota had been vigorously fighting hundreds of complaints that its cars are prone to unintended acceleration. Now it’s moving toward a global settlement as a consequence of a single Oklahoma lawsuit that appears to establish that Toyota can’t prevail if it can’t prove a negative—that its software didn’t go haywire in some untraceable and unreplicable manner. …

The Bookout jury was apparently impressed by the testimony of software expert Michael Barr. He said a single “bit flip” (the smallest instance of data corruption) could cause uncontrolled acceleration when the driver had been using cruise control, stopped using cruise control, then resumed using cruise control to let the car accelerate back to its selected speed. …

The connection to Ms. Bookout’s crash, which didn’t involve cruise control and took place on an exit ramp? None, except Mr. Barr claimed that “software failure is consistent with the description of the [Bookout] accident” and “more likely than not” a factor.

Jenkins notes, as have others, that if some mysterious and unreplicable bug is causing Toyotas to accelerate suddenly while disabling the brakes, it seems to differentially appear in cars being driven by elderly drivers, which are greatly overrepresented in the crash statistics.

More: Kyle Graham on whether vaccine liability limits make a plausible precedent for limits on liability for driverless cars.

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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]

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The bogus Toyota sudden-acceleration scandal, fed by credulous media and hungry lawyers, has now cost the Japanese automaker upwards of one billion dollars on paper in settlements, despite the lack of an actual mechanical basis for the claims. (The “on paper” is a necessary qualifier because class action settlements typically fall short of transferring the actual sums declared) Yet many more lawsuits remain unsettled, including one nearing trial alleging that the automaker was negligent in not installing a system that cuts off accelerator power when the brake pedal is depressed. Whatever their value as a gesture of reassurance, such systems are of no help whatsoever in the actual sudden-acceleration accidents that typically make it to court, in which drivers mistakenly believe themselves to be pressing the brake when their foot is actually on the accelerator. [L.A. Times, whose coverage as usual disappoints]

P.S. National Law Journal coverage of pending trial:

“The heart of the mass tort was always the electronic throttle control. The fact that the first trial is going and not bringing that theory is interesting,” said Byron Stier, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in mass tort litigation. “Look how far that is from the original panic of this.”

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Autos roundup

by Walter Olson on April 3, 2013

  • Abuse of out-of-state motorists an issue: “The Perils of Policing for Profit: Why Tennessee should reform its civil asset forfeiture laws” [Beacon Center, earlier]
  • Manhattan: “Lawyer takes plea in $279M no-fault auto insurance fraud case” [ABA Journal]
  • “AAA Warns of ‘Dangerous’ Free Market in Parking Spaces” [Matt Yglesias, Slate via Tim Carney]
  • Negotiated rates on auto loans at dealerships might violate Obama administration’s disparate-impact guidelines [Roger Clegg]
  • Not great for Law dot com’s credibility: Corp Counsel mag throws in with “sudden acceleration” goofery; and here’s an effort to gear up acceleration claims against Ford too.
  • Ethanol group menaces Phillips with antitrust charge unless it alters franchiser rule [Alexander Cohen, Atlas]
  • “Two researchers call for installing technology to disable cellphones in moving cars” [L.A.Times via Fair Warning]

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January 29 roundup

by Walter Olson on January 29, 2013

  • In job bias dispute: “Federal Court Says Veganism Might Qualify As A Religion” [Religion Clause]
  • Perennially credulous L.A. Times drops broad hints that Toyota settlement vindicates sudden acceleration theories, others know better [LA Times, NLJ earlier]
  • “Cato Named America’s Most Effective Think Tank Per Dollar Spent” [Dan Mitchell, Nick Rosenkranz]
  • Disappointing: Transportation Sec. LaHood said to be “sticking around for a while” [Roads and Bridges, earlier] That was quick: only hours later, he says he’s leaving after all [WaPo]
  • It became necessary to destroy the sex workers in order to save them [Melissa Gira Grant/Reason]
  • Profile of lefter-than-thou NY attorney general Eric Schneiderman [NY Mag]
  • As rural pub tradition declines, Irish government rejects proposal to ease DUI laws [AP]

We now know that the panicky tales of electronics-driven sudden acceleration in Toyotas, as urged on the nation by trial lawyer allies like Clarence Ditlow and Joan Claybrook, were sheerest fantasy. That’s no real surprise, since earlier reports of mechanically arising sudden acceleration in Audis and other brands of automobile (also urged on the nation by Ditlow et al.) proved equally imaginary.

But the media never learns, and if they don’t, why should the government? So the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing a rule that would require all auto designs to include “override” systems which shut off the accelerator if the brake is pressed. This will have no effect at all on typical “sudden acceleration” accidents, which arise from drivers’ hitting the wrong pedal, since those drivers already imagine themselves to be hitting the brake. They will have little if any effect on the extremely rare floor mat entrapment cases in which an accelerator gets trapped in the depressed position, because drivers can already overcome such acceleration by pressing the brake pedal if it is available, while if it is not available because of mats or other obstructions, the efficacy of the override may fall short of what is hoped.

But at least the government will be able to say that it did something.

I did find it interesting in the Washington Post account that Ditlow seems for the moment to have joined the rest of us in agreeing that pedal misapplication is the big cause of these accidents, the better to afford him a vantage point to criticize NHTSA for Not Doing Enough on that front. That’s quite a change from what you hear from him at the height of these panics, when he tends to talk up every possible cause of unwanted acceleration other than driver error. When the next sudden-acceleration panic breaks out, I fully expect CAS to be back pitching the electronics theories again.

P.S. Plaintiff’s lawyer and longtime Overlawyered favorite Steve Berman asserts that there have been “thousands of crashes, hundreds of deaths,” a claim the National Law Journal’s Amanda Bronstad relays without skeptical comment.

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March 5 roundup

by Walter Olson on March 5, 2012

  • Trial lawyer TV: mistranslation, plaintiff’s experts were instrumental in “Anderson Cooper 360″ CNN story trying to keep sudden-acceleration theory alive [Corp Counsel, Toyota, PDF, background]
  • “Can I get a form to file a police complaint?” No. No, you can’t [Balko]
  • Madison County lawyer runs for judgeship [MCRecord; earlier on her columnist-suing past]
  • RIP Dan Popeo, founder and head of Washington Legal Foundation [Mark Tapscott, Examiner]
  • Louisiana: “Church Ordered to Stop Giving Away Free Water” [Todd Starnes, Fox via Amy Alkon]
  • Developer of “Joustin’ Beaver” game files for declaratory judgment against singer Justin Bieber’s trademark, publicity claims [THR, Esq.]
  • “Why are Indian reservations so poor?” [John Koppisch, Forbes] “Payday loans head to the Indian reservations” [Katherine Mangu-Ward, Reason] Tribal recognition: high-stakes D.C. game where lobbyists get the house rake-off [Chris Edwards, Cato]

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.

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May 31 roundup

by Walter Olson on May 31, 2011

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April 6 roundup

by Walter Olson on April 6, 2011

  • Lack of defect poses problem for plaintiff: Toyota prevails in first acceleration case [NLJ]
  • Australia: writer Andrew Bolt on trial for alleged racially disparaging columns [Herald Sun, Crikey, The Age]
  • “Attorneys Put Themselves Before Consumers in Class Action over Faulty Computer Chip” [CJAC, Frank/CCAF on NVidia case]
  • Ruling by Federal Circuit is thinning out rush of patent marking cases [Qualters, NLJ, earlier]
  • Podcast: Lester Brickman and “Lawyer Barons” [PoL, earlier here and here]
  • “Are class actions unconstitutional?” [Lahav, Mass Tort Lit, on Martin Redish book]
  • “Free speech belongs on campuses too” [Ilya Shapiro, Cato, on Widener case, with kind mention of Schools for Misrule]
  • King Canute turns attention to dry land: states mull bills to forbid use of distressed properties as appraisal comps [Funnell]

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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.

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.

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Toyota theories shift

by Walter Olson on January 9, 2011

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]

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November 22 roundup

by Walter Olson on November 22, 2010

Product liability edition:

  • You mean cigarettes were dangerous? “Florida jury awards $80M to daughter in anti-smoking case” [AP]
  • “Acne drug not found to increase suicide risk” [BBC, earlier on Accutane here, here, etc.]
  • “Man hit by jar of exploding fruit says $150,000 award isn’t enough” [Detroit News via Obscure Store]
  • Chicago accident coverage exemplifies Toyota acceleration hysteria [Fumento/CEI] NHTSA-NRC panel findings on subject [PoL]
  • Strict product liability is in decline, according to Prof. David Owen [Abnormal Use]
  • More questions raised on $500 million Nevada hepatitis verdict [PoL]
  • Notwithstanding chatter in press about toxic cosmetics, study finds cosmetologists have below-average cancer rates [David Oliver]
  • Florida juries repeatedly hold Ford liable for millions when drivers fall asleep [five years ago on Overlawyered]

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.

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