-- Toyota could face a raft of reopened vehicle-rollover lawsuits after allegations by a former in-house lawyer that the automaker concealed and destroyed evidence and conspired to obstruct justice in civil cases.
Dimitrios Biller, a former Toyota corporate lawyer involved in the rollover cases, contends in his lawsuit that the Japanese automaker's executives "made every effort" to quash investigations from 2004 through 2007. Biller alleges Toyota TM destroyed data that should have been made available to plaintiffs' lawyers in 300 product-defect lawsuits.
An attorney who lost one rollover case against Toyota and settled another filed a lawsuit Friday against Toyota alleging unfair practices, fraud and racketeering. "If Mr. Biller's allegations are true, it should fit into all three of those," says the lawyer, Richard McCune of Redlands, Calif., who is seeking class-action status for the lawsuit.
In an e-mailed statement, Toyota blasted Biller and defended its legal department: "Mr. Biller has repeatedly breached his ethical and professional obligations, both as an attorney and in his commitments to us, by violating attorney-client privilege in defiance of a court restraining order that Toyota obtained against him."
Biller did not return a call. Attorneys for Biller said they had no comment beyond the filing.
Consumer groups are watching. "If the allegations are correct that Toyota destroyed or withheld (electronic) data, it has the potential to reopen hundreds of Toyota rollover cases," says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.
According to Biller, Toyota also withheld a report involving roof-crush data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"There are vehicles on the road today" that don't meet Toyota's internally required safety goals, Biller alleges in his court filing.
Rae Tyson, a NHTSA spokesman, says the withheld data wouldn't have mattered in formulation of new rules for rollover safety because the agency performed its own tests.
Biller's suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on July 24 but escaped notice until it was the subject of a report last weekend by CBS News.
Tab Turner of Little Rock, another lawyer who filed more than 20 lawsuits against Toyota involving rollovers of its 4Runner SUV, says there is "no question that information should have been produced by Toyota."
One of his cases is cited in Biller's filing as a lawsuit in which the automaker deliberately withheld information that Turner should have received.