Toyota looks to have a potential public-relations nightmare on its hands. According to CBS News, one of the company's former lawyers, Dimitrios P. Biller, has filed a federal racketeering suit against the Japanese automaker. Biller worked for Toyota from 2003 through 2007 defending the company against rollover lawsuits blaming injuries and deaths on the alleged instability and weak roof structures of the company's SUVs and pickups. Biller's suit alleges that Toyota has withheld electronic evidence like emails in over 300 rollover cases, and it states that evidence was destroyed by the company in spite of his efforts to secure the data. The suit also alleges that Toyota withheld design and test data for vehicle roofs, and it also states that some vehicles on the road today don't meet roof safety standards.
The disgruntled lawyer claims that he was forced to resign in 2007 after lodging several complaints to his supervisors about the company's alleged legal misconduct. The lawsuit claims that conflicts resulting from Biller's complaints ultimately led to his mental breakdown, along with a $3.7 million severance payout from Toyota.
Toyota is saying very little about Biller's charges, though the company told CBS News that Biller's charges are "inaccurate and misleading," and that the company "takes its legal obligations seriously and works to uphold the highest professional and ethical standards." The lawsuit was filed on July 24, but Toyota has worked to seal the complaint due to what the company calls privileged and confidential information.
The legal skermish has, rather predictably, caught the eye of lawyers around the country. If the lawsuit gains traction and has a favorable outcome for Biller, dozens of Toyota legal victories could be called into question. Denver lawyer Stuart Ollanik of Gilbert, Ollanik and Komyatte has reportedly settled dozens of cases against Toyota and he told CBS News that he wondered if the cases "were resolved based on honest information or not." San Jose lawyer James McManis, who lost a case involving a plaintiff who became a quadriplegic after rolling over in a Toyota 4Runner, told CBS News that everything "was a big fight – and I mean everything," and he wonders if he ever got all the information he was entitled to receive.
It's important to remember that none of the information in Biller's lawsuit has been proven, and rollover suits have been pretty common for many automakers. Whether Toyota is at fault or not, though, the suit can't be good publicity for a company that prides itself on its quality and safety record. The motion is set for September 14. Hat tip to Steve.