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Toyota In Trouble For Denying Defect

Nov 5, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

Despite a well-publicized accident involving the deaths of a family and a number of its own investigations, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), denies claims that it did not find any defects regarding a huge automobile recall and “unintended acceleration,” said the LATimes.

The regulators have criticized the Toyota Motor Corporation for making “inaccurate and misleading” statements claiming there was no defect in the nearly four million cars that were recalled following an accident in California that involved a loaner Lexus and the deaths of four family members, said the LATimes. Yesterday, the NHTSA stated that the cars involved in the recall—Toyota and Lexus vehicles—contain an “underlying defect” that involves the cars’ accelerator pedal and driver’s side foot well, said the LATimes. Toyota maintains that the issue is with an “improperly installed floor mat.”

The fatal crash August 28 involved off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor (45); his wife, Cleofe (45); Mahala, their 13-year-old daughter; and Chris Lastrella (38), their brother-in-law; all four perished, said Detroit News previously. Details of the chilling accident that prompted the NHTSA to investigate the crash include the 2009 Lexus plummeting over an embankment and bursting into flames. The family was able to contact a 911 operator, saying they were unable to stop the ES 350; Lastrella advised the operator that the Lexus had no brakes. Most poignantly, the 911 tape, recently made public, included the family asking one another to pray at the recording’s end, just before their deaths, said Detroit News.

In recall notices mailed this week, the auto giant is urging consumers to remove driver’s-side mats; Toyota also issued a statement this week stating that the letter "confirms that no defect exists in vehicles in which the driver's floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured," quoted the LATimes. Also, Toyota issued a video statement disagreeing with media claims that unintended acceleration could be attributable to mechanical issues, said the LATimes.

The denials provoked the NHTSA statement. "Safety is the No. 1 priority for NHTSA and this is why officials are working with Toyota to find the right way to fix this very dangerous problem…. This matter is not closed until Toyota has effectively addressed the defect by providing a suitable vehicle-based solution," the LATimes quoted.

Recently, the LATimes wrote that a federal report found that there exists a potential defect in the design of the car’s gas pedal. The debacle also involves an earlier recall, a serious government-issued warning, and 11 NHTSA investigations. Toyota finally agreed to issue a massive recall—its largest ever—of nearly four million of its vehicles following the horrific Saylor family deaths, but continues to maintain that an improperly floor mat was to blame.

Federal highway safety inspectors recently released details of that deadly crash including a finding that, reported the LATimes previously, involves a gas pedal design in the Lexus ES 350 sedan that actually increases the likelihood of the pedal being “obstructed” by a car’s floor mat. Including the California fatalities, the NHTSA received 100 complaints involving 17 crashes and five deaths, said Detroit News previously. One-third involved the Lexus ES 350, the Free Press said earlier.

A Times review of NHTSA documents in an other Lexus investigation indicated that the agency “found that the Lexus ES braking system loses power-assist when the throttle is fully opened, increasing braking distance five-fold,” reported the LATimes. The recent report says, “Beyond the main pivot, the lever is not hinged and has no means for relieving forces caused by interferences,” quoted the LATimes, citing investigators. The report also revealed that the gas pedal’s lower edge was “bonded” to the rubber floor mat that also reveals floor mat damage in the area surrounding the accelerator.


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