2010 Toyota Camry undergoing recall repair

The Toyota settlement recently submitted to US District Judge James Selna for approval will cost the company anywhere from $1 billion to $1.4 billion. All to settle the class-action suit brought against it for economic losses stemming from claims of unintended acceleration. This suit only addresses the perceived loss-of-value that Toyota owners and lessees feel they have suffered, alleging their cars were the victims of unintended depreciation even if they did not directly suffer from the alleged cases of unintended/sudden acceleration. This is a separate case than the wrongful death suits brought about by the unintended acceleration brouhaha.

When the settlement was announced, this was the overview of its payouts:
  • Toyota will install brake override systems in all 3.25 million vehicles subjected to the floor mat entrapment recall.
  • Another fund of $250 million will compensate current owners whose vehicles are not eligible for the free brake override system.
  • A fund of $250 million will compensate former Toyota owners who sold their cars from September 1, 2009 through December 31, 2010 for lost value.
  • Education grants valued at $30 million will be made to independent academic institutions to further study auto safety and enhance driver education.
  • All 16 million current Toyota owners will be eligible for a customer care plan that warrants certain parts allegedly related to unintended acceleration for three to 10 years.
Car and Driver attempts to break down where all that largesse is going, and who's going to get large off of it. We'll start from the top. Having something like three million cars run through service departments to have brake override systems fitted with Toyota stumping up the cash, is probably a win for dealerships and suppliers and even Toyota, obliquely, according to the report. The $250-million fund to reimburse owners whose cars can't be fitted with brake override systems will see each owner get a check for anywhere from $37.50 to $125 depending on the specifics of the model in question. Nobody wins that one.

The $250 million earmarked to compensate owners and lessees for lost value might end up being disbursed to millions of people and institutions, with estimates for individual payouts being from "hundreds of dollars to over a thousand dollars." The paucity of the payout doesn't just reflect the number of payees, it also reflects the near impossibility of an owner being able to determine and prove having suffered a specific amount of financial pain beyond standard depreciation. If anyone gets a trophy from that one, Car and Driver figures it's large used car dealers who moved a lot of Toyota metal during the time span.

$200 million is going to the 85 attorneys at 25 law firms for fees, plus another potential $27 million for their expenses.

Of the $30 million allotted for studies, up to $15 million will go to university studies of safety technology, another $800,000 going specifically to a university that will study "critical gaps in awareness and practice regarding defensive driving skills" including "driver pedal misapplication." The results from that study will be broadcast to the nation via a public safety campaign that will use some portion of the leftover $14.2 million dollars. Obviously, universities and advertising media make out all right with this, and hey, maybe we can all benefit from more research into safety technology.

The reporting doesn't address the extended customer care plan, but since the causes of alleged unintended acceleration haven't gone beyond suppositions of floor mats and pedal misapplication, and since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA cleared the vehicles of any defects causative of unintended acceleration, good luck getting that warranty honored. Unless you need new floor mats in 2022.

That gets us up to a potential spend of $530 million so far, plus the cost of the brake override fitment. On top of that is another $200 million going to the 85 attorneys at 25 law firms for fees, plus another potential $27 million for their expenses. If the two hundred mil were split evenly among the 85 (it won't be – it will be disbursed to each according to their effort), that would make each advocate worth more than $2.35 million. And that's before expenses. It's pretty clear who wins that one, isn't it?

And assuming the settlement is approved by the judge, you'd have to figure Toyota wins. The company is about to be declared the largest automaker in the world again and it's predicting record sales for 2013. It could enter 2013 with this part of the ugly episode behind it and using money that has been saved just for the purpose. Not only that, the proposed settlement is less money than outsiders were expecting – word of the estimates actually sent Toyota's stock price up. So some things, like a few lawyers' bonuses, would change, otherwise much has remained just the same...