Toyota lawsuit: Did automaker buy up cars to hide defects?

Toyota lawsuit charges the automaker with buying up defective cars in exchange for confidentiality agreements. Toyota denies the allegations.

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    In this Feb. 4 file photo, Toyota Master Service Technician Mike Blomberg inspects a gas pedal assembly removed from a Toyota at a Toyota dealership in Springfield, Ill. The automaker says it has repaired most of the 5.6 million cars and trucks it has recalled in the US for sticky accelerators or accelerators jammed by floor mats. But a new lawsuit claims that some Toyota technicians have themselves experienced the vehicles speeding up without pressing the gas.
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Toyota Motor Corp. 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 company 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 Wednesday in U.S. District Court.

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"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 in a statement. "In fact, test driving of these vehicles is ongoing and they are operating safely."

The automaker didn't respond to the allegations that it required the owners to remain silent and said it looks forward to defending itself in court.

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed against Toyota after the automaker began recalling millions of vehicles because of acceleration problems in several models and brake glitches with the Prius hybrid.

The automaker has recalled more than 10 million vehicles worldwide over the last 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 has blamed a variety of factors — driver error, faulty floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals — for the unintended acceleration. Some plaintiffs claim Toyota's electronic throttle control system has a defect, but Toyota has sought to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing drivers haven't identified any such problem.

In one instance, according to the latest court documents, a Toyota service supervisor in May 2007 reported a customer who was concerned about a 2006 Avalon that lunged after coming to a stop.

"Toyota had better get going quick as I predict this will result in numerous accidents and possible deaths," wrote supervisor Mike Robinson, who was relating the customer's comments. "I have talked with my service manager and he said, 'They all do it.'"

Plaintiffs' attorneys say Toyota never reported purchasing concerned owners' vehicles to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nor did Toyota executives when they testified before Congress earlier this year. The automaker said Thursday it told the federal agency three separate times about the claims.

Olivia Alair, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said Toyota told NHTSA in December 2009 about one of the sudden unintended acceleration incidents through the government's early warning system.

Alair said the department was talking with Toyota about the incidents and the investigation was continuing.

The Transportation Department and NASA are expected to conclude their investigation of the Toyota recalls by the end of the year. In August, the department said it had not found any electronic problems in runaway Toyotas, citing a study of event data recorders, the "black boxes" that record data about a vehicle involved in a crash.

In a separate study, the National Academy of Sciences is conducting a more sweeping review of unintended acceleration in cars and trucks across the auto industry. The panel is expected to release its findings in fall 2011.

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