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Lawmaker accuses Toyota of withholding evidence

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By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010

Toyota withheld documents it was legally required to turn over in liability lawsuits the company faced and it paid higher settlements to plaintiffs to avoid revealing information contained in Toyota's secret "Books of Knowledge," a congressional committee chairman said Friday.

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Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which grilled top Toyota officials Wednesday, said in a statement that the documents, which were obtained under subpoena from a former Toyota lawyer-turned-whistleblower, "indicate a systematic disregard for the law and routine violation of court discovery orders in litigation."

The committee subpoenaed documents held by former top Toyota North America lawyer Dimitrios Biller. From 2003 to 2007, Biller represented Toyota against liability claims of Toyota drivers who were injured in crashes. Biller said that the documents showed that Toyota refused to release documents it legally was required to turn over, because they would have allowed the cases against Toyota to go forward.

The documents include Biller's recounting of a 2006 arbitration case against Toyota involving a vehicle rollover that left the driver paralyzed. Toyota was willing to pay a premium settlement to prevent the plaintiff's lawyers from getting access to Toyota's Books of Knowledge, which, Biller writes, "contain highly sensitive information that rises to the level of trade secrets and highly confidential information."

In the documents, Biller explains: "The Books of Knowledge contain information on how to design vehicles and component parts (including safety systems like seat belts, side curtain airbags). The information does not relate to any one particular vehicle; the information relates to all vehicles. The information is essentially design principles and philosophies that serve the foundation for how Toyota designs its vehicles."

Toyota did not respond to a request for comment.

Also Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that it purchased the 2007 Lexus ES350 that took Tennessean Rhonda Smith on a six-mile, 100-mph terror ride in 2006 when, she said, the accelerator stuck. Smith recalled the incident in gripping testimony on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The NHTSA said it will test the vehicle to try to find the cause of the runaway acceleration.

The NHTSA said that it paid $42,500 to buy the car from its current owner; Smith sold it after the incident.

Kelley Blue Book lists the value of a 2007 Lexus ES350 in good condition, purchased by a private buyer, at $23,185.


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