An article on July 26th in the New Bedford Standard Times reported on a 59 year old New Bedford man placed in protective custody in the county jail at the request of his daughter because he was drunk. The man was assaulted in his cellby another
Jail Abused Protective Custody
8/20/15 Settlement – $275,000.00 Minor Pedestrian/Auto accident
The minor Plaintiff, 13, was operating 4 wheel ATV at his friends house in Rhode island, when he was struck, severely fracturing his ankle, by an oncoming vehicle as he entered the roadway. The plaintiff alleges that he was not paying attention as he was attempting to avoid being hit by snowballs being thrown at him by one of the other teenagers present on the site.
The Plaintiff alleged that homeowner was negligent in allowing the Plaintiff and the three other minors present to operate the ATV on the street and without any supervision or guidance as well as a claim against the homeowners policy of the young man that was pursuing him while on the ATV and the operator of the vehicle that struck him. All of the defendants denied the allegations. Brian Cunha, from Brian Cunha & associate requested mediation and the case was successfully settled at a mediation before William Poore in RI with each party contributing to the settlement.
11/20/14 Settlement $100,000.00
9/19/14 Jury Verdict: $100,000.00 Dog Bite
9/19/14 Bristol Superior Court:
After a three day Trial in the New Bedford Superior Court, a jury rendered a $100,000.00 verdict for the Plaintiff who was represented by Attorney Sharon Sybel from Brian Cunha & Associates, against the owner of a pit bull whose dog caused serious injuries to the Plaintiff .
The incident occurred on April 5, 2011 when the female Plaintiff,46, a tenant of the Defendant, went to the first floor apartment to return borrowed keys. After the Plaintiff knocked on the door, the Defendant’s girlfriend opened the door and the Defendant’s two pit bulls ran out into the hallway where the Plaintiff was standing. One of the dogs bit the Plaintiff on the right foot causing injury.
Critical to the case were photographs of the Plaintiff’s injured foot taken just after the incident. (As in many cases, prior to surgery, the orthopedic surgeon took several photographs of the Plaintiff’s foot that were shown to the jury during the course of the Trial.) Attorney Sybel was able to secure those photos for trial. The impact of these photographs undoubtably aided the jury in understanding the significant pain and suffering sustained by the Plaintiff which was reflected in their verdict.( The lesson to be learned is that photos are very important and can speak a thousand words)
The Defendants defense at trial was that the defendant was not liable as prior to the attack the Plaintiff had teased the pit bulls. The Defendant also attempted to introduce evidence of the Plaintiff’s prior criminal record and character to negatively influence the jury.
Crucially in this case Attorney Sybel was able to successfully convince the judge that the plaintiffs criminal record was irrelevant to the real issue before the court as to whether the dog had bitten the Plaintiff and whether the plaintiff was at fault and that the sole reason that the Defendant was attempting to introduce this evidence was to prejudice the jury against the Plaintiff. The judge sided with Attorney Sybel and disallowed the prejudicial evidence
Again critically, at the completion of the trial, Attorney Sybel also successfully argued to the trial Judge that the defendant had failed to introduce sufficient evidence that the Plaintiff had teased or tormented the dogs to allow the jury to decide the issue. The Judge agreed and found as a matter of law that the Plaintiff did not tease the dogs and found the Defendant responsible for the dog bite, leaving the jury to decide damages After a three day Trial in the New Bedford Superior Court, a jury rendered a $100,000.00 verdict for the Plaintiff who was represented by Attorney Sharon Sybel from Brian Cunha & Associates, against the owner of a pit bull whose dog caused serious injuries to the Plaintiff .
3/19/14 $500,000 verdict against State of RI
$500,000.00 Jury Verdict Awarded Today to LPN Injured at R.I. Veterans Nursing Home
PROVIDENCE: After a week-long trial, a six-person jury sitting in the Providence Superior Court today rendered a $500,000.00 verdict against the State of Rhode Island in favor of Victoria Roach of Newport, who was injured in 2008 at the R.I. Veterans Home in Bristol.
The State of Rhode Island owns and operates the 260-bed, nursing care facility. Roach was assigned to work at the home on a per diem basis as a licensed practical nurse; she was employed by Mass Medical Associates, a temporary placement agency for nurses.
The case was heard before Superior Court Justice Patricia Hurst. Roach was represented by Brian Cunha and Karen Alegria of Brian Cunha & Associates. The State of Rhode Island was represented by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Shaw.
While on duty on November 10, 2008, the plaintiff was seriously injured when she slipped and fell on soapy water or cleaning fluid left on the floor of a resident’s bathroom. Roach was dispensing medication at this time to a totally disabled resident. She was attempting to dispose in the bathroom sink a small amount of liquid used in administering medication to her patient. In so doing, she entered and fell in the resident’s bathroom.
Roach’s lawyers, Brian Cunha and Karen Alegria of Brian Cunha & Associates, presented evidence at trial that the cleaning spill was not adequately wiped and cleaned beforehand -even though one or more CNAs had responsibility for doing so immediately preceding the accident. Evidence was also presented at trial that one or more CNAs had failed to adequately inspect the area as required.
Plaintiff’s counsel proved that Roach was severely injured as a result. She suffered a torn ACL and torn meniscus that resulted in surgery to repair her knee, and she was unable to return to work for an extended period of time.
“This case is a wake-up call to all nursing home operators that they have to be vigilant in routinely inspecting and maintaining their premises,” Cunha said.
The R.I. Veterans Home is the 260-bed, nursing care facility in Bristol that is owned and operated by the State of Rhode Island. The facility also maintains six long term care units, including an Alzheimer’s Care Unit and two ambulatory care units with 79 beds. The State of Rhode Island owns and operates the R.I. Veterans Home in Bristol.
Attorney Brian Cunha
Offices in Rhode Island and Massachusetts
10 Plaintiffs File Rabies Lawsuit against the Owner of Gray’s Ice Cream
A lawsuit was filed yesterday in Rhode Island Superior Court in Newport on behalf of ten people, eight of whom are children, who faced possible exposure to rabies after having contact with a calf at Tiverton Four Corners last July.
The case generated considerable attention at the time. The calf, named Oreo, had bitten a Massachusetts man on July 15. The calf died on July 21, but the town did not notify state officials until July 24, too late to make a definitive determination about the cause of death.
The Department of Public Health in Massachusetts and the Department of Health in Rhode Island instructed anyone who had contact with the animal between July 5, 2013 and July 21, 2013 to contact them regarding their possible exposure to rabies. Each of the plaintiffs did so and were advised by state officials to receive rabies shots.
The suit alleges that Marilyn Bettencourt, owner of Gray’s Ice Cream, Inc., was negligent with respect to the supervision, care and maintenance of a “de facto” petting zoo adjacent to the popular establishment.
Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that Bettencourt failed to have the calves inoculated with the rabies vaccine; allowed the public to interact with the calf named Oreo; and allowed the public to interact with this animal despite the fact that it appeared ill.
The suit further alleges that as a result of this “failure to ensure that the public was not exposed to a diseased calf,” the plaintiffs were caused to suffer severe, permanent and grievous injuries, severe pain and emotional distress, while expending substantial sums of money in the form of medical and hospital care.
The complaint also brings suit against the Town of Tiverton for negligence – for the alleged failure of the Tiverton Animal Control to notify the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management in a timely fashion so the animal could be tested for rabies. The suit maintains that as a direct result of the Tiverton Animal Control’s delay, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management could not perform the test for rabies on the calf because the animal was too decomposed.
As a result of the town’s failure to ensure that the public was not exposed to a diseased calf, the plaintiffs maintain that they suffered the injuries alleged. Pursuant to state law, claims had already been filed with the Town of Tiverton seeking $100,000 in damages for each plaintiff. A jury trial is being sought.
According to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Brian Cunha, “This unfortunate series of events has disrupted the lives of so many with frightening consequences. The ongoing medical care that each was required to receive was extremely burdensome, expensive and especially terrifying for children. The rabies virus attacks the central nervous system and can cause death. Lingering and serious side effects are possible.”
“The medications are especially potent – with multiple doses being given over various times. But for the actions of the two defendants, this situation need never have arisen, Cunha added.”
Sharon Sybel is the lead attorney on the case. A senior staff attorney with the law firm, she investigated the matter; filed the original claims with the town; and prepared the complaint.
In Court, always tell the truth or else: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we practice to deceive”
12/24/13 No witness takes an oath simply to tell the truth. The oath at the beginning of testimony is to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Like many things in our normal lives, we tend to blur it all together into one image. But like many things in the precise and artificial world of being a witness, we need to examine the entire statement and make sure that we understand and consider all three parts. There are, after all, three parts to the oath for good reason. In this column, we will examine the first.
Witnesses should understand that this is not only a rule of law — it’s a rule of self-preservation. Lying or stretching the truth as a witness may not only be a crime, it’s also foolish.
Assume that the questioner is more experienced than you think, and that his experience includes the ability to make a witness who is playing fast and loose with the truth very uncomfortable.
If a questioner suspects that a witness is not being honest, he can take a variety of approaches to try to catch that witness in a lie. The consequences of lying are often worse than whatever it was the questioner was asking about in the first place. It’s what we used to call the “Watergate Syndrome” (perhaps now the “Martha Stewart Syndrome”): people getting caught and prosecuted for covering up, not for the initial subject matter. Don’t do it. Tell the truth.
‘Oh, what the heck!’
As the questioning drags on, as a witness is asked about the same things over and over, as the questioner makes clear he doesn’t like or doesn’t believe the witness’s version, there is a natural (and understandable) tendency for the witness to say, “Oh, what the heck,” and give the questioner a little more of what he seems to want.
After all, maybe the question is only slightly wrong, maybe someone else could see it that way, maybe if the witness just gives in a little the questioner will move on already!
Unfortunately, all those “maybes” are misguided and dangerous for a witness to entertain.
First, when one is under oath and every word is taken down and picked apart, there is no such thing as “slightly wrong.” If something is not completely and precisely true, don’t say it (or agree with it); it will only cause more problems.
Second, it doesn’t matter what someone else’s view of the matter might be or whether that view is reasonable. That mysterious “other person” is not the witness.
Finally, “giving them what they want” will not make questioners go away. They will only want more.
There are no shortcuts here. What is true in mathematics is equally true in this process:
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The truth is a narrow, precise line. Make sure that no matter how hard someone tries to get a witness to veer off that line, the witness will resist the “oh, what the heck” tendency.
Once you’re off track it becomes harder and harder to get back on. No matter how many times a question is asked, and in however many different ways, the truth — and truthful answer — must remain the same.
Mistakes: normal, helpful
Everyone accepts that nobody’s perfect, yet in a witness environment, many people tend to forget it.
The setting, the oath and the court reporter all combine to make witnesses feel that they cannot make mistakes. They feel like someone is grading them, and any mistake will hurt their grades. So when they inevitably make a mistake, they panic and either ignore it or try to mold and shape it, like clay, into something else.
Tell your witness: Don’t do it. When you make a mistake, which every witness does at some point, keep two things in mind:
First, remember the “Law of Holes”: When you’re in a hole, stop digging! Trying to work around a mistake will ultimately only make it worse. As soon as you realize you made a mistake, stop and fix it.
There are lots of ways to do that, but one of the easiest and most effective is the simple word “clarity.” The goal is a clear and accurate record, so stop and clarify:
• something you remembered wrong;
• something you were confused about;
• a poor choice of words, by you or the questioner; and/or
• an incomplete or distorted answer.
Second, don’t worry about it. This is not school, you’re not being graded and should not expect to be perfect. More important, Juror No. 6 doesn’t expect it either. He’s nervous, too. He knows he would make mistakes were he in the witness box, and he does not want robots talking to him. A mistake draws a witness closer to him, not farther away.
If a witness makes an honest mistake and honestly tries to clarify it, any attempt by the questioner to make much ado about nothing will reflect poorly on the questioner, not on the witness.
My favorite quote about mistakes is by Elbert Hubbard, from “The Notebook”:
“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.”
It can be critical to a witness’s success that the preparation process takes away some of that fear.
This blog was taken from the Lawyers weekly article in December 2013
Rotten Tree results in $140,000.00 settlement
On November 3, 2007 the male plaintiff, age 72, was traveling in his car down Bayview Avenue in Bristol, Rhode Island, when a large Norway Maple tree fell over, crushing his vehicle and causing injury to his neck. The Plaintiff retained the offices of Brian Cunha and Associates to investigate the cause of the accident. Brian Cunha & associates retained an Arborist expert to review the condition of the tree at the time it fell. The expert, through photographs and discovery was able to determine that the tree was visibly rotten which should have been obvious to the tree warden for the town and should have been either treated or maintained and the failure to do so was negligent
The Plaintiff through Brian Cunha & Associates sued the Tree Warden, an unpaid position, for the Town of Bristol and the private tree servicing company that serviced and inspected the trees for the Town of Bristol. It was learned during the case that the tree Warden for the Town was also the president of the private company that inspected and maintained the trees for the Town of Bristol, which was paid an average of $86,000.00 per year to do so.
The Plaintiff claimed that both the tree warden and the tree wardens private company were negligent. The Plaintiff claimed that the tree warden was negligent for not doing his job and his tree company as an agent of the tree Warden.
Incredibly, the tree company, filed a Motion to dismiss the claim against it claiming that the corporation owned by the tree warden was protected from suit because it was the duty of the tree warden to maintain the trees and not the company owned by the tree warden.
As to the town, it maintained that the duties of the tree Warden were discretionary in nature and therefore they were immune from liability as it was a matter of discretion on the part of the tree warden to inspect the trees or remove them and in any event the damages against a city or town or its employees in Rhode Island are capped at $100,000.00
Not unsurprisingly, both the town and the tree wardens company lost their motion to dismiss and the Plaintiff successfully convinced the two insurers that there were serious questions of conflict of interest concerning the duties performed by Tree Warden because at the same time he served as Tree Warden, he was also engaged as president of his company for pecuniary gain. The Plaintiff’s case settled for $140,000.00 despite the argument that damages were capped at $100,000.00 against a city or town under RI law.
Texting While Driving is against the Law
Many people do not know that it is illegal to not only text while driving but also to read a text while driving.
Only recently our office was involved in an case where a young woman, who was distracted while looking at a text on her cell phone, seriously injured a young man on a motorcycle. She was charged and pled guilty to driving to endanger and given a 6 month suspended sentence. Although the accident was ordinary negligence, because she was looking at a text the penalty was much greater. The district attorney was asking for a sentence of 2 I/2 years! .The moral is if your wish to text pull over; do not drive!
In addition, Police have reported a number of accidents on Rt. 102 in Burrillville – many of which were determined to have been preventable. The initial investigation in at least one of the accidents has indicated that distracted driving, involving texting and driving, played a role in the deaths of two young people. This is a somber reminder of the dangers of distracted driving, and particularly of texting and driving.
The RI Attorney Generals office has promoted a very good “It Can Wait” anti-texting and driving campaign which he has brought to schools across Rhode Island over the past year. In addition the General Assembly also passed a law to impose stiffer penalties on habitual offenders who text and drive. Since cell phone use has become a major means of communication in our society, we have seen the amount of traffic accidents due to text messaging and distracted driving rapidly increase. Through education and deterrence, we can change drivers’ attitudes about this dangerous habit. This new law will give the Courts the discretion to impose stricter penalties on those who continue to text while driving, risking their own lives as well as the lives of others on our roads.
Is Toyota Telling the Truth About Sudden Acceleration?
Toyota says its problems with sudden unintended acceleration are in the rearview mirror, but newly disclosed documents that werte cited in a recent article raise questions that experts say have not yet been answered. This article points out the necessity of lawyers and the judicial system in keeping the manufacturers honest and the public safe. As the article demonstrates Toyota was anything but forthright in its explanation of the cause of sudden acceleration in its vehicles resulting in terrible accidents and death.
According to the article on the day he died, Mark Saylor was doing what he did for a living: driving on a California highway. Only he wasn’t driving his state-issued highway patrol car that day in late August 2009. Nor was he driving his own Lexus 250, which was at the dealer for servicing. He was driving a loaner with his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law on a leisurely family outing northeast of San Diego—until suddenly the car inexplicably took off. And no amount of braking could slow it down. As Saylor frantically tried to gain control, his brother-in-law called 911. “Our accelerator is stuck!” he told the dispatcher. “We’re going 120!”
It wasn’t just the speed that made this so dangerous. He read the sign they were passing: “End freeway one-half mile.” The car was barreling toward a T-shaped intersection. When it got there, it hit another car, flew through a fence, rolled into a field, and burst into flames. The last word before the screams was, “Pray!”
This wasn’t the first time that someone driving a Toyota had experienced sudden unintended acceleration. And it’s not a problem that’s unique to Toyota. But this was the event that Toyota cites as the beginning of its ongoing crisis.
How has it responded? The company has moved aggressively to contain the damage. Shifting floor mats were identified as a primary cause of many of these episodes. The company found that the loaner that the 45-year-old Mark Saylor was driving was equipped with mats that had never been intended for that car. Later, the company fingered accelerator pedals manufactured by a third party as prone to sticking. And Toyota says that many accidents are caused by drivers who inadvertently step on the gas instead of the brake.
As the crisis mounted, the company seemed overmatched. Critics charged that Toyota had sacrificed quality—its traditional strong suit—in a rush to rack up sales. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which had been criticized for years for its willingness to pin sudden acceleration on driver error, suddenly got tough. Toyota recalled more than 8 million cars and paid fines totaling more than $50 million. Litigation, which had slowed down before the Saylor crash, roared back to life, fueled by the recalls and new complaints. And the political pressure, coupled with a Democratic Congress, led to hearings in Washington that drew global attention. Toyota Motor Corporation president Akio Toyoda flew in from Japan to personally face the politicians’ angry questions.
But then everything seemed to calm down. As the company battled two large multidistrict litigation class actions (MDLs) in California, it quietly settled some of the smaller lawsuits, including the one brought by the Saylors’ survivors. The results of several investigations trickled in. Some had been commissioned by Toyota, and tended to include lots of technical data and to focus on floor mats and gas pedals. Then, in 2011, NHTSA concluded its own probe, which purported to be comprehensive, and Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (the parent agency of NHTSA), pronounced himself satisfied that Toyota’s cars were safe.
Not only had the public uproar subsided, sales rebounded. Following a slump that was probably attributable as much to the economic downturn as the bad publicity, last year the company regained its status as the world leader in car sales. For Toyota, the long ordeal seemed over.
But some leading automotive experts aren’t buying it. Last December, Toyota agreed to pay $1.3 billion to settle the MDL brought by car owners who claim that they suffered economic damages as a result of these events. Critics point out that it’s a pretty big number for plaintiffs who weren’t even directly affected. Beyond that, more than 200 personal injury cases remain to be resolved in the other MDL. The first bellwether trial had been scheduled for March, but it settled in January on confidential terms. At this writing, it’s unclear how the matter will play out; some lawyers expect another large settlement.
But putting aside the politics and litigation, these automotive experts simply don’t believe that the controversy has been put to rest. They acknowledge that some accidents are caused by drivers stomping on the gas instead of the brake, and some from defective floor mats and gas pedals. But the experts don’t believe that these explain the surge in complaints. Instead, they believe precisely what Toyota has for many years steadfastly denied: that the problem is rooted in electronics.
These experts have found some surprising support from insiders at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who were close to the investigation NASA conducted into Toyota’s acceleration problems a couple of years ago (and which LaHood cited when he discounted problems with its electronics). And now the experts say they’ve found additional corroboration in the communications of Toyota’s own people. Corporate Counsel obtained scores of internal documents written by employees who were struggling to understand why cars were suddenly accelerating, and where the company could have gone wrong. Among the writers were executives, managers, lawyers, public relations specialists, and engineers.
What this demonstrates, in the age of YouTube and Wikileaks, is how hard it is for multinationals and their in-house counsel to keep a lid on their companies’ internal data.
Many of the documents are marked “secret” and “confidential.” They were provided by Betsy Benjaminson, a translator who has worked for several agencies that translate Toyota documents from the Japanese (and who translated several of those quoted in this article). She says that these shops work for law firms hired to assist the company in litigation.
Benjaminson provided these and many more documents last year to Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, who then wrote a letter to NHTSA expressing his concern that questions about electronics have not been resolved. Corporate Counsel showed Toyota the complete documents from which quotes were excerpted for this article; read the company’s response here.
Benjaminson is revealing her identity for the first time here. She decided to go public because lives are at stake, she says. “Up to now,” she adds, “the corporate PR megaphone has completely drowned out the victims.”
Four experts agreed to review the documents independently and share their impressions. Keith Armstrong, Antony Anderson, and Brian Kirk are based in the United Kingdom; Neil Hannemann lives in California. All of them have decades of experience. The documents they reviewed date from as early as 2000; the most recent were written a few months after the congressional hearings in February and March 2010. They include many emails along with spreadsheets, flow charts, and diagrams.
On one important point the experts agree: There is no smoking gun that shows that Toyota identified and concealed an electronic defect that was responsible for crashes. But numerous documents, they say, undermine the corporation’s repeated attempts to reassure the public, as exemplified by the testimony of Jim Lentz, the CEO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. In February 2010 Lentz told a House subcommittee: “We are confident that no problems exist in our electronic throttle systems in our vehicles.” He went on to testify, “We have done extensive testing on this system, and we have never found a malfunction that caused unintended acceleration.”
The documents seem to tell a different story. An email written by Hiroshi Hagiwara, a Toyota vice president in Washington, D.C., and sent to executives in Japan a month before the hearings hints at the turmoil beneath the surface. Hagiwara and Chris Tinto, a V.P. for technical and regulatory affairs and safety, had been talking about the U.S. investigation and an earlier one in Europe that also involved unintended acceleration (UA).
“Tinto is extremely pessimistic,” Hagiwara wrote, “and is saying (public hearings, someone will go to jail, I can’t completely take care of the pedal problem, etc.).” Tinto’s primary concerns (according to Hagiwara): “For NHTSA, we said that our investigations in Europe found that the pedal return is a little slow at a slightly open position, and that there were no accidents, but this is not true. Last year’s situation in Europe (many reports of sticking pedals and accidents, and a TI TS9-161 was filed on October 1, 2009) was not reported to NHTSA.” That failure, Tinto said, “may be a violation of the TREAD Act”—the federal law that requires car manufacturers that conduct recalls in foreign countries to report these to U.S. regulators.
Still speaking of Tinto, who worked for NHTSA in the 1990s before he was hired away by Toyota, Hagiwara continued: “He appears to question how Toyota has grasped and handled the overall UA problem (mat, accelerator pedal, ECU [electronic control unit], and electronic throttle systems, etc.).”
Hagiwara reminded the executives to be careful what they put in writing. He asked them to fax any investigative reports related to Europe. “It is OK to write various things to me in emails written in Japanese,” he advised, “but as much as possible only send materials that would not be controversial if disclosed (namely, things that have been reviewed), and it is best, I think, to discuss things orally.”
The documents make it clear that in-house lawyers and public relations personnel worked together to craft a strategy. Christopher Reynolds, the U.S. general counsel, advocated defending the electronic throttle control by seeking “validation” by a panel of experts. Using the Japanese word for building consensus to act, he wrote in December 2009 that he hoped “we can finalize a nemawashi plan this week and begin to implement it.”
One of the weaknesses in Toyota’s defense was flagged in an email sent by assistant GC Webster Burns the following April. Commenting on a demand letter from NHTSA that the company pay a $16.375 million fine for delaying its sticky pedal report, Burns wrote: “We need to keep in mind that we continue to find significant differences within Toyota about the significance of the sticky-pedal phenomenon which will be exploited by NHTSA in any litigation.”
Some documents require translation by specialists. An undated spreadsheet showed test results of an engine’s electronic throttle control system, including numerous faults that the document said cause sudden acceleration. “My guess is they were fixed in development,” says Hannemann, who has been hired by plaintiffs suing Toyota, and also by the defense in a suit against a Toyota dealer. “But this shows you have to find issues during testing. And how do you know you catch them all?”
Several documents illustrated what the experts describe as a propensity of Toyota employees to define problems as they wish them to be, regardless of the facts. One is Toyota’s analysis—performed three days after Saylor’s death—of car owners’ complaints received by NHTSA. Some drivers described their own harrowing experiences. Several were adamant that theirs had nothing to do with floor mats, yet that didn’t always matter to Toyota’s reviewer.
One woman riding in a 2006 Toyota Tacoma said that it was the third such experience she’d had with the car. “Two times previously Toyota has replaced the cruise control,” she reported. “This is not a cruise control problem. This is a gas pedal issue. I was told previously the mat was under the gas pedal. This is hardly the problem.” In the column provided for the cause, the reviewer wrote: “The mat catches (specifics unknown).” It was the most common cause listed on the chart, regardless of what the drivers had to say. Antony Anderson, an independent electrical consultant who specializes in electrical machine and control system failure investigations (and has provided independent expert testimony for plaintiffs who sued Toyota), says the document shows how Toyota’s “poor analysis” makes it appear that the incidence of stuck floor mats “is very much higher than it really is.”
Another example of preemptive answers appeared in an undated email written by an engineer. He asked if acceleration can be caused by radio wave interference. Then he recounted his earlier experience with interference: “Previously, when I was in charge of Hilux [a truck model] in the Japan domestic service division, I experienced an engine stall malfunction due to radio wave interference from a nearby U.S. naval base in Yokohama. At that time I was told that it could absolutely never occur.” Keith Armstrong, an expert in electronic circuit design as well as electromagnetic interference (EMI), says the idea that radio waves can’t cause electronic malfunctions is absurd: “I know of no expert in this field who doesn’t work for the auto industry (and some who do) who would ever make such a ridiculous claim.” Armstrong has advised electronic suppliers on EMI safety issues, and he has also twice advised NHTSA, at its request. (He has not been involved in Toyota litigation.)
Anderson and Hannemann are even more troubled by an email exchange between Michiteru Kato, a general manager based in Japan, and Tinto in D.C. In messages dated October 11, 2007, the two were discussing television coverage of sudden acceleration in the Tacoma. Tinto wondered whether the mothership was looking into the situation. Actually, Kato replied, headquarters had not received any technical field reports from dealers or regional offices “because as you know, the sudden acceleration or surge issue usually can’t be duplicated by the dealer and they can’t find any abnormality on the vehicle. In those cases the dealer does not make the field report.” Consequently, he added, “Toyota does not know what’s happening on the Tacoma vehicles and just started the investigation.”
Hannemann found it more than odd that Toyota was, as the email makes plain, getting information about its own problem cars from NHTSA, the media, and Internet forums. “You should be telling NHTSA things, not the other way around,” says Hannemann, who has worked as a product development engineer at Chrysler Corporation and as a chief engineer at the Ford Motor Company. (Toyota says that in April 2010 it established a new program to investigate all reports of unintended acceleration. It attempts to contact individuals within 24 hours to arrange a full analysis of their vehicles.)
The documents also revealed introspective moments during which executives considered where their company went wrong. One Japanese exec, identified only as Takimoto, wrote in March 2010: “All of the current problems were caused by the low level of completeness of vehicle development during the time period when I was in charge. I am really very sorry.” Another executive ruefully admitted in February 2010 that quality was hurt by the fact that “the numbers of prototype vehicles, production vehicles, and quality assurance test vehicles were dramatically reduced,” as were “test vehicles for evaluation and quality verification.”
The experts who reviewed the documents offered their own assessments. Brian Kirk, the founding director of Robinson Systems Engineering Ltd, which specializes in safety critical software and systems for the transportation industry (and is not involved in Toyota litigation), says that the engineers “seem to be genuinely trying to understand the problems and provide practical solutions within the constraints of legacy and time pressure. However, there is no apparent safety engineering process forming a rigorous basis for understanding and solving the issues.” Hannemann also finds a general lack of rigor. When technicians investigate complaints, they don’t seem to press to find the root cause. “It seems that their problem solving is focused on something that’s predetermined,” he notes. And if they’re not going to rigorously test cars prior to production, then they need to listen carefully to complaints from consumers, who are essentially doing the testing for them. But the company wasn’t doing that either, he says.
The problem of sudden acceleration emerged after electronic controls were introduced into cars in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Before then the issues were driver error and mechanical problems—like a throttle return spring failing. Diagnosing electronic failures, on the other hand, is much more challenging. As Keith Armstrong puts it: “Electronics in its very nature is weak, unreliable, sensitive.” And when a component fails, it doesn’t necessarily leave evidence. “Think of your PC,” he says. “Sometimes it will crash and you’ll reboot it. And if someone then asked, ‘Where is the evidence?’ you may not be able to show them.”
Sudden acceleration is still a very rare event, but unlike operating a computer, a malfunction in a car can cause serious injury or death.
Toyota isn’t alone in struggling with this problem. Ford has had its own sudden acceleration problems over the years. They were the centerpiece of the 2003 book Sudden Acceleration: The Myth of Driver Error, which was partly funded by a product liability award in an SUA case paid by the company.
For Ford and some of the other manufacturers, the big problems began with the introduction of cruise control. That was the function that was linked to early incidents, and some groundbreaking lawsuits, though causation wasn’t easy to prove. The companies preferred to blame the drivers, asserts Clarence Ditlow, the longtime director of the Center for Auto Safety and one of the authors of the book. The book estimated that only about 1 percent of SUA episodes actually result from “pedal misapplication,” as the companies call it.
Ditlow reserves some of his harshest criticism for NHTSA. “NHTSA has been controversial from the beginning,” he observed in the book. “It was criticized by the auto industry for being too aggressive in its regulation, and by consumer advocates for being too weak and responsive to the industry.”
On one level Ditlow can commiserate with the agency, which is notoriously underfunded, he notes. But he can’t excuse its handling of SUA complaints. It has adopted the same attitude, Ditlow says, as the car manufacturers: If you can’t find a failure, it must be driver error. “I think that’s wrong,” he says in an interview. He also sees the same posture in NHTSA’s 1989 report on sudden acceleration that has been cited many times by the defense in product liability lawsuits.
The main battleground has been the courts, where plaintiffs have made slow progress convincing juries and judges that electronic malfunctions are real. But translating the evidence into a winning formula hasn’t been easy. Proving a circumstantial case rarely is. “We have the burden of proof, and we should,” says Molly O’Neill, who works with the dean of SUA trial lawyers, Thomas Murray of Sandusky, Ohio. “But you cannot open up the car and show what went wrong. That’s the nature of electronics.”
Before one of Murray and O’Neill’s biggest wins, a trial judge ruled that their expert couldn’t mention EMI, which was an important part of their explanation of how the accident happened. In the Daubert hearing, the judge said she was concerned that the expert’s findings couldn’t be replicated in tests. They later won Jarvis v. Ford on appeal in 2002, in a decision written by Sonia Sotomayor before she was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Murray says it was one of the first successful challenges to the electronics in a car’s cruise or throttle control. Yet, for EMI, it was another argument lost in translation.
Asked to respond to criticism of its company, Ford offered a full-throated defense of its regulator: “NHTSA has investigated alleged unintended accelerations many times over many years and has concluded that driver error is the predominant cause of these events. NHTSA’s work is far more scientific and trustworthy than work done by personal injury lawyers and their paid experts.” The emailed statement concluded: “Ford has reviewed its own data and determined that its vehicles are not affected by the problems experienced by Toyota owners.”
In an emailed statement, NHTSA also defended its enforcement, citing Toyota’s recalls and fines. And in this case, it said, “we went above and beyond our regular review process” and chose NASA to investigate. The results “made clear there was no evidence of any electronic cause of sudden, high-speed unintended acceleration in the Toyota vehicle models that were the subject of the study.”