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Toyota accused of forcing vehicle owners to keep quiet

LOS ANGELES — Toyota bought back cars from drivers who reported sudden acceleration defects, but the company didn't tell federal regulators about the problem, according to court documents filed in the sprawling litigation against the automaker.

Plaintiffs' lawyers contend the Japanese automaker compelled the owners to sign confidentiality agreements that prevented them from speaking publicly about the issues they encountered.

In some cases dating back to 2006, Toyota's own technicians experienced the vehicles speeding up without pressing the gas pedal, according to the documents filed this week in U.S. District Court.

"The deeper we dig into the facts that surround Toyota, the more damning the evidence that Toyota was aware of the issue and failed to act responsibly," plaintiffs' attorney Steve Berman said. "The revelation that they bought up the cars in question and prevented the owners from talking about their experience is curious at best, nefarious at worst."

Toyota spokesman Mike Michels denied the allegations, saying company technicians weren't able to duplicate the sudden acceleration claimed by drivers in two instances.

"After having thoroughly analyzed these vehicles and driven them for thousands of miles, Toyota (technicians) and engineers have not been able to replicate the customers' acceleration concerns nor found any related issues or conditions in these vehicles," Michels said.

Toyota has recalled more than 10 million vehicles worldwide over the past year. Federal officials said they have received about 3,000 complaints about sudden acceleration and estimated the problem could be involved in the deaths of 93 people over the last decade.

Last month, Toyota paid an undisclosed amount to settle a lawsuit with the relatives of four people killed in August 2009 when a driver was unable to stop a runaway Lexus. The high-profile case helped draw attention to the acceleration phenomenon, which in some cases was blamed on faulty floor mats trapping vehicles' accelerator pedals.

Some of the remaining lawsuits seek compensation for injury and death due to sudden acceleration, while others claim economic loss from owners who say the value of their cars and trucks plummeted after the recalls.

All of the federal cases were consolidated and assigned to a judge in Southern California. The next hearing is Nov. 9.

Toyota accused of forcing vehicle owners to keep quiet

10/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 9:12pm]

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