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Toyota turns to evasion, deception as legal tactics

MIAMI — Toyota has routinely engaged in questionable, evasive and deceptive legal tactics when sued, frequently claiming it does not have information it is required to turn over and sometimes even ignoring court orders to produce key documents, an Associated Press investigation shows.

In a review of lawsuits filed around the country involving a wide range of complaints — not just the sudden acceleration problems that have led to millions of Toyotas being recalled — the automaker has hidden the existence of tests that would be harmful to its legal position and claimed key material was difficult to get at its headquarters in Japan. It has withheld potentially damaging documents and refused to release data stored electronically in its vehicles.

For example, in a Colorado product liability lawsuit filed by a man whose young daughter was killed in a 4Runner rollover crash, Toyota withheld documents about internal roof strength tests despite a federal judge's order, according to court records. The attorneys for Jon Kurylowicz now say such documents might have changed the outcome of the case, which ended in a 2005 jury verdict for Toyota.

"Mr. Kurylowicz went to trial without having been given all the relevant evidence and all the evidence the court ordered Toyota to produce," attorney Stuart Ollanik wrote in a new federal lawsuit accusing Toyota of fraud in the earlier case. "The Kurylowicz trial was not a fair trial."

Dimitrios Biller, a former Toyota attorney, sued the company in August, contending it withheld evidence in considerably older rollover cases.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has subpoenaed some of Biller's still-undisclosed records, says they show possible violations of discovery orders.

Toyota disputes Towns' statement and the accusations of deception. Toyota told the AP it plays by the rules when it comes to defending itself.

Attorneys who defend corporate clients say it's common for plaintiffs' lawyers to complain they don't get the information they need and that Toyota's tactics do not indicate nefarious intent.

"It's always a battle in these big cases between plaintiffs and corporations as to what documents they have and whether or not they produce everything they should have," said Matthew Cairns, president-elect of the 22,500-member DRI-Voice of the Defense Bar group of civil defense attorneys.

Still, some attorneys who have fought Toyota say the company's evasiveness exceeds the normal legal back-and-forth and that Toyota may have benefited from being based in another country.

"They've used the Pacific Ocean as a great defense to producing documents," said Graham Esdale, a lawyer in Montgomery, Ala., who has sued Toyota. "If Ford or General Motors tells you something and you don't believe that it's right, you can get a court order to go get access to the documents instead of relying on them. … We don't have that with the Japanese manufacturers."

Toyota turns to evasion, deception as legal tactics 04/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 8:54pm]
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