We write often about the combine of trial lawyers, politicians, activists and PR flacks, aided by a sympathetic media, campaigning against companies in hopes of a cash payout and the expansion of the regulatory state. The attacks against Toyota provide a good example of this pernicious phenomenon.
Today, the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration announced the results of an in-depth scientific study that found no basis for the claims that vehicles’ electronic systems produced unintended acceleration. (Toyota statement.) Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said: “We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics systems, and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.”
Organizers of the corporate calumny against Toyota should be held accountable. The trial lawyers and their allies damaged the company’s reputation and sales, created unnecessary fears in the American public, and added to the “tort tax” that afflicts the U.S. economy.
Let’s start with the trial lawyers. The American Association for Justice, the main trial lawyer lobby, kept up a steady attack against Toyota, even dedicating the September 2010 cover of its monthly magazine, Trial, to the unfounded charges, “Toyota’s Deadly Secrets.” Just search the AAJ website for the term “Toyota” to see the unceasing promotion of litigation — class action suits, product liability suits, insurance complaints, even RICO claims.
The trial lawyer campaign was amplified last year by then-Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. A subcommittee hearing in February 2010, “Response by Toyota and NHTSA to Incidents of Sudden Unintended Acceleration,” painted the company as an offender, failing to meet its corporate responsibilities. Another hearing in May repeated the allegations, complete with the release of subpoenaed documents that served the purposes of anti-Toyota litigation. The House Oversight Committee also promoted the charges, holding a hearing in February, “Toyota Gas Pedals: Is the Public at Risk?” The answer was no.
Meanwhile, self-styled consumer groups like Public Citizen carried on their own campaign of misinformation and alarm.
Throughout this campaign, experienced observers recognized what was going on. In March, 2010, Walter Olson of Overlawyered.com remembered the great Audi scare of decades past and saw a similar phenomenon: Driver error by mostly older drivers, not mechanical or electronic failure, produced the accidents. Not that the campaigners ever let the public know.
Driver error? You could have spent hours watching the stacked congressional hearings, or the breathless, America-in-crisis coverage on NBC, with no inkling that hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake was any sort of major factor. Certainly the impresarios of the Great Toyota Panic — the members of Congress and their staffs, the TV producers, and above all the consumer advocates with their close trial-lawyer ties — were not at all keen to explore that topic.
Will there be accountability? Will Toyota get more than a day’s worth of balancing news coverage? Or will the lawsuits continue to drag out, racking up costs, while the trial lawyer/activist/politician combine just waits for the next target? We fear we know the answer.
But there’s one place where Congress could address this ugly, expensive campaign that did so much economic damage and stoked so many unjustified fears: The House Energy and Commerce Committee is under new management after last November’s elections. Let’s see a few congressional hearings that explore the litigation machine, in depth, putting the focus on the people who made the unjustified accusations.
And two worthwhile online columns …
Walter Olson, Cato@Liberty, “Told Ya Toyota”
Leonard Evans, engineer and traffic safety expert, AOL Opinion, “The Feds’ Toyota Study Wasted More Than Money“