TOKYO (AP) - The California auto worker who is suing Toyota and others in a whistleblower lawsuit said Tuesday she was merely carrying out the quality-conscious "Toyota way" in spotting defects when managers cracked down on her efforts and demoted her.
Katy Cameron, 54, employed for 23 years at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., a joint venture between Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp. in Fremont, Calif., is suing the companies in a lawsuit, filed Nov. 6 in Alameda County Superior Court.
The lawsuit accuses management at NUMMI of routinely deleting or downgrading defects that Cameron found as a certified auditor - including broken seat belts, faulty headlights, inadequate braking and steering wheel alignment problems - and demands $45 million in damages for retaliation against a whistleblower and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
"I believed in the Toyota way. I really did. I just wanted to know why they turned their head on me," Cameron said from California in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "Why did they look the other way when I cried out for help?"
Cameron said she was trained in Toyota's corporate philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of the workers on the assembly line not only in making manufacturing more efficient but also pointing out defects and other problems. She was so good she trained other auditors, she says.
But about five years ago, the management at NUMMI seemed to shift its emphasis to quantity over quality, eager to reduce defect numbers, which determined their bonus pay, said Cameron.
And Toyota's vaunted quality-check system seemed to get neglected, she said.
Cameron said she went to court only after she tried to alert higher-ups to what she saw as serious wrongdoing, including her bosses, as well as the top executive at NUMMI, handing him a letter and other reports in writing in 2006.
She also sent reports in writing to Toyota executives, including one to President Katsuaki Watanabe but has received no response so far, she said.
The companies are declining comment on the lawsuit, saying the case is pending. But NUMMI spokesman Lance Tomasu said in a statement last week that quality is a priority and said the claims will be investigated thoroughly.
Toyota Executive Vice President Kazuo Okamoto, who oversees technology, acknowledged he was aware of the lawsuit but said Monday he did not know details.
Toyota has built its global empire riding on its reputation for reliable vehicles. Toyota executives have repeatedly said they are worried about quality standards slipping as the automaker steps up worldwide expansion.
Toyota's products, such as the Camry and Corolla, are so popular some analysts say the company is on track to beat GM as the world's biggest automaker by sales this year. But the number of recalls has ballooned with the surge in vehicle sales.
"It was Katy's passion to be the eye of the consumer," said Cameron's attorney Kelly Armstrong in San Francisco. "This is a $45 million message to NUMMI, Toyota and General Motors that they can no longer emphasize quantity over quality at the expense of hardworking Americans and consumers."
Cameron, who has been on medical leave from stress the lawsuit says is caused by persistent on-the-job harassment, returned to work Tuesday. But she has been assigned to putting auto parts in boxes, and is no longer allowed to inspect vehicles. Her bosses have repeatedly threatened to fire her, according to the lawsuit.
Cameron said NUMMI management blocked her attempts to relay quality problems to Toyota in Japan by preventing her from using the company phone and fax and taking away her in-company Internet privileges.
She expressed admiration for the Toyota work ethic, praising the corporate culture as "awesome." There is nothing Cameron wants more than to have her job back checking for defects, she says.
"I was trying to do my job. It was my job. And now here I am: I am punished for doing my job," she said. "I felt really betrayed. And I felt used because I worked hard. I worked very hard."