Toyota Situation Provides Great Opportunity for America to Examine the Frivolous Lawsuit Epidemic
By Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher
AUTO CENTRAL - February 6, 2010: There was a time in America, when people would try to make something out of themselves via hard work, ingenuity, and a little luck; sometimes a lot of luck. But along with the proliferation of TV sound-bites replacing well thought out and articulated statements, and the beatification of untalented celebrity nitwits, more and more we are getting overrun by bloodsucking leeches who think they're entitled to endless welfare or obscene frivolous lawsuit settlements.
Sometimes lawsuits are necessary; sometimes the awards are very justified, particularly when a verdict comes after a long protracted struggle to get a person, corporation or government agency to own up to some really nasty wrongdoing - and there has been plenty of that.
But this era of ambulance-chasing TV pitchmen looking for victims has really gotten out of control… Talk about unintended sudden acceleration.
In the Toyota situation, at least so far, we’re looking at something that’s totally despicable in my opinion. There has been no proof that the Toyota vehicles have been suddenly and dangerously accelerating out-of-control, and there has been no stonewalling of action taken by Toyota to mitigate the effects of the firestorm. If anything, by humbling themselves in a show of hari-kari level contriteness, Toyota has laid themselves open for attack from what seems like every hyena on the planet. And attack they have.
When you consider how some companies have capitulated in the past to groundless consumer class-action lawsuits, the sea of shysters might do to Toyota what “American” carmakers could never do; chase the company and its products from our country. Considering how good the Toyota products are, this would be a crime. If new Buicks, for example, are to win back consumer market share, it would be great if they do it because they have a better product and value proposition, not because their toughest competition has abdicated the throne; this will serve no one’s best interests.
Back to my initial premise: Shouldn’t lawyers have to wait on filing class-action claims until something has been proven defective? I mean, we don’t even have a scammed-up video from CBS or NBC yet that purportedly shows how Toyota vehicles suddenly bust out in unrestrained stampede. And shouldn’t the ABC newsreader that has taken to calling Toyotas “runaway cars” be bitchslapped for jumping the gun? How is it that he would have to call the Ft. Hood murderer the “alleged shooter,” but he can render an immediate verdict on Toyota without any supportive evidence?
In case everyone has forgotten, vehicular accidents and fatalities happen all the time. The majority of accidents are caused by operator error, not equipment malfunction. Did we suddenly forget how many people don’t know how to drive properly; how stupid some drivers are; how often drivers hit walls and other cars in parking lots and garages? Do we suddenly not recall that we all know someone who has said, “I dunno, it just got away from me.”
Just this morning, at breakfast, I said to my wife, “If a car accelerates out of control simply move the gear shift to neutral. End of story.” I then had to laugh when about two hours later I watched a news interview with our old friend Bobby Likis (car expert and radio talk show host) who illustrated this procedure exactly: You move the gear shift to neutral, apply the brakes or let the vehicle come to a safe stop, and then turn off the ignition. It’s an easy, simple, virtually foolproof solution; although I have to admit, that like the bromide, “Just when I thought I got out in front of the rat race, the rats got faster,” there’s seems to be no way to inoculate against what a determined fool can do.
On Thursday, after a few days of public statements by Toyota executives about how and what they’re doing to insure that unintended sudden acceleration does not occur, I called my press-relations contact at Toyota and asked how many, and which, journalists have called to complain about any of the Toyota press cars (Lexus, Toyota, Scion) experiencing unintended sudden acceleration. He said, “None.” I asked if he heard of any other Toyota press-relations officers receiving journalist complaints about this problem, and he said, “No.” Yes, I know this is merely anecdotal evidence, and the fact that I have never experienced unintended sudden acceleration in any Toyota product that I’ve test-driven may be just a matter of luck. But then, isn’t it just anecdotal evidence when we hear how some guy’s car suddenly, without intention, accelerated to 100 MPH? Why is that anecdotal evidence good enough to permit the frenzy of class-action lawsuits?
What has confused me is the often quoted story about how California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, young daughter and brother-in-law died in a horrific crash when their Lexus 350 ES suddenly accelerated into a “T” intersection, smashed into a Ford Explorer, then an embankment, and then went airborne before coming to a burning stop in a riverbed. Without question, this is a tragic story.
We know the details because Saylor’s brother-in-law made a 911 call to describe what was happening. The reason I’m confused is because the 911 call was made before the crash, not after as he lay dying. If there was time to make such a call and comment on the panic-charged atmosphere in the vehicle, why didn’t the driver, a CHP cop, just shift the car into neutral? It wasn’t just a bang-bang incident (pardon the hideous pun) that happened too fast to react. There should have been time to take counter-measures. If you doubt this, try making a 911 call and see how long it takes to actually get to the point where you can speak to somebody. So there was the time for Saylor to communicate to his brother-in-law that there was a problem; for the BIL to find and/or take out and possibly turn on the cell phone, dial, and then wait for the call to be answered. You would hope that an experienced policeman would not become so completely rattled that he couldn’t think clearly and quickly enough to disengage the drive-train by simply shifting into neutral.
The latest details of the Saylor incident are set forth in the180-page “Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration” report issued yesterday, February 5, 2010, by Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. The report, which is available online, acknowledges that NHTSA investigations have never identified a cause of any unintended sudden acceleration claims, and the authors of the report itself make no definitive conclusion as to the cause of unintended sudden acceleration, but it seems to avoid any serious discussion about the likelihood of operator error. One possible reason for this omitted explanation is that there’s no pot-of-gold at the end of an operator-error explanation rainbow, for either the ambulance chasers or for Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., should they be called upon to testify as safety experts on behalf of any plaintiffs.
So again, I’ll return to my initial premise: That the obscenely premature lawsuits against Toyota provide a great opportunity for our legislative bodies to examine the frivolous lawsuit epidemic that has infected America. If I wasn’t such a cynical person, I’d even suggest that some beneficial legislation could result from this examination.
Access the Safety Research & Strategies report at