Toyota Motor Corporation is one of the world’s largest motor vehicle manufacturing corporation. Headquartered in Aichi, Japan, the company’s ‘Toyota’ automobile models are quite popular in nearly all regions of the world due to their comparatively cheap prices and fuel efficiency.
As an international corporation headquartered in Japan, the corporation off shores much of its production activities, and procures cheap labor from various countries outside Japan. Off shoring enables companies to reduce operation costs and thus maximize on profit (Meredith & Shaffer, 2007, p.136). The Toyota Motor Company has several divisions in the US involved in production, assembly, and sale of Toyota automobiles.
In late 2009 and the early months of 2010, Toyota Motor Company began a worldwide recall of its vehicles, many of which were found to have faulty accelerator pedals. The pedals malfunctioned upon increased application of pressure, leading to accidents which had, by the time of the recall, killed nearly one hundred persons.
In the US, the death figure was about 60. Toyota Motor Corporation ignored early complaints of problems with the floor mats, accelerator, and brake pedals in some of its models.
The subsequent reluctance to alert its clients of the stated defects in its vehicles publicly, and denial of the existence of the same defects make Toyota Motor Corporation culpable, and the ensuing product liability lawsuits against the corporation are well justified.
Background to the Product Liability Lawsuit
Complaints against the faulty accelerator pedals had been made as early as the year 2006. Further complaints from Toyota vehicle owners focused on the floor mats, which seemed to attach to the accelerator pedals, and when this occurred when a driver was in high speed, the driver easily lost control of the vehicle.
Additionally, during high speeds, when a driver applied the breaks the vehicle increased its speed, leading to loss of control and accidents, therefore, even the break pads themselves were faulty in these vehicles.
Toyota Motor Company as a corporate entity had always been a model company insofar as quality production, employee satisfaction, and customer service were concerned. According to Liker, Toyota’s corporate management style was one of the best in the world, and had always been used as the best example in running successful and sustainable corporations (2010, p.30).
However, in 2001, Toyota Motor Corporation’s resolution of increasing its global market share by nearly 20% – thereby making it the world’s largest automaker in terms of units produced and sold – began to erode the corporation’s quality commitments.
Toyota Motor Corporation had always had a post for a vice president in charge of worldwide quality production. However, due to the drive to increase sales, this office got engaged in sales increase as opposed to its core business, leading to the decline in quality that led to the production of the vehicle models with the defective floor mats, accelerator and brake pedals.
The Product Liability Lawsuit
The Product Liability Lawsuit against Toyota for the above stated product deficiencies and negligence on the part of the manufacturer were filed in California and New York, US, in March 2010.
Mark Saylor, a Highway Patrol officer, was off duty and had been travelling with a Toyota Lexus automobile since his own vehicle was undergoing service. While cruising at high speed, the accelerator pedal attached to the floor mat and his subsequent inability to stop the car led to a collision that resulted in his death (The Gilbert Law Group, 2010, Para. 2).
According to his wife and other relatives who filed the liability lawsuit against Toyota, a previous user of the same vehicle had complained of the exact hitch with the accelerator pedal that led to Saylor’s death. Despite this complaint, the Lexus dealership (managed by Toyota Motor Corporation) still went on and rented out the car to Saylor.
Another victim of the malfunctioning pedals was Nancy Murtha, who while driving her Lexus in the company of her five year old child tried to apply the breaks only for the vehicle to accelerate further, and she subsequently crashed into a wall (The Gilbert Law Group, 2010, Para. 8).
Her child died while she suffered multiple injuries that required several surgeries, which left her bankrupt and emotionally traumatized. Saylor’s wife and their relatives filed a product liability lawsuit against Toyota in California on 18 March 2010, while Nancy Murtha filed her lawsuit in New York on 24 March 2010.
The Reaction of Toyota Motor Corporation
By the time the two lawsuits were filed in the US, Toyota had recalled about 9 million units worldwide due to suspected defects in the accelerator and brake pedals. Therein lays the fault with Toyota Motor Corporation: despite undertaking such a significant recall of its vehicles, there were no press releases to warn owners of particularly susceptible vehicles such as the Lexus, that their vehicles were veritable death traps.
Therefore, owners and users of Toyota models such as Lexus – for instance Mark Saylor and Nancy Murtha – could have benefitted immensely from public warnings of the possible defects in their vehicle’s accelerator pedals.
The matter of faulty accelerator did not come to the attention of Toyota Motor Corporation in the period immediately preceding the recall, but much earlier. According to Taylor, as early as 2007, reports of defective floor mats and the malfunctioning accelerator pedals had begun to surface on a substantial scale in the US (2010, p.110).
However, part of the reason why the recall of these vehicles was delayed has to do with Toyota’s tradition of dealing with its overseas plants and clients, and the corporation’s historically slow reaction to allegations of deficiencies in its automobile models. Toyota typically has a number of Chief Engineers, or Shusas, whose exclusive task is to oversee the quality of manufactured automobile models.
However, due to Toyota’s focus on expansion and an increased global presence, these Shusas overrode many decisions made by Toyota managers in overseas divisions, such as the US.
Therefore, any reports of mechanical defects in theses vehicles would receive scant attention from the Shusas, who seemed more interested and focused on the corporation’s growth. Additionally, these Shusas would routinely ignore recommendations from Toyota’s overseas managers, especially if such recommendations did not align with the corporation’s expansionist intentions.
Furthermore, Toyota Motor Corporation has historically been averse to acknowledging defects in its automobile units. Long admired for its quality productions, Toyota basked in the glory of the quality of its units for so long that, any claims of defects in its units would immediately be dismissed or denied altogether.
For instance, between 1998 and 2003, the corporation refused to acknowledge the fact that some of its six cylinder engines in the US were performing under par due to a build up of engine oil caused by defects in the cylinders.
Even though independent investigations confirmed this fact, Toyota Motor Corporation fervently denied these claims, only to agree later to repair and compensate owners of vehicles with the defective engine cylinders (Taylor, 2010, p.111). Lewis States that the fear of negative publicity for a corporation such as Toyota sometimes outweighs the desire to perform public good, even when lives are involved (2010, p.32).
Unethical Conduct of Toyota Motor Corporation
As stated in the foregoing paragraphs, there was indeed an actual manufacturing problem in the Toyota automobile models, especially the Lexus, which necessitated a worldwide recall. The recall began November 2009, and as more investigations revealed further hitches in wide ranging Toyota models, the scope of the automobiles units recalled widened. The last recall occurred in May 2010.
Instructively, the onus was Toyota Motor Corporation to issue public warnings and press releases communicating to the American public the possible anomalies in the accelerator pedals of some of its automobile models. Such an undertaking never occurred, and due to the lack of such notices, Mark Saylor and Nancy Murtha’s child, and many other victims lost their lives.
According to Bensinger and Vartabedian, federal regulators had, as early as 2007, asked Toyota Motor Corporation to consider making the necessary changes to the software of its automobile models to prevent sudden acceleration in its vehicles, a complaint against Toyota models that had become too common to ignore for the regulatory body concerned (2010, Para. 1).
The company should have conducted a worldwide systems analysis of its models; to identify faults and make the necessary changes, as is the purpose of a systems analysis (Meredith & Shaffer, 2007, p. 156). The corporation did no such software upgrade.
The conduct of Toyota Motor Corporation in handling its vehicle recalls between November 2009, and the early months of 2010 were unethical, especially in light of the needless lives lost due to the lack of public communication of the possible defects in its vehicles.
As discussed in this paper, The Toyota management, both in and out of the US, had been aware of complaints regarding the faulty accelerator pedals, and the defective floor mats. However, the corporation was slow to act, meanwhile, millions of lives were put at risk, and some, like that of Mark Saylor and Nancy Murtha’s child discussed here, were lost.
As much as the corporation had earned its reputation as a manufacturer of quality vehicles over the years it has been in operation, this seeming lack of empathy and its desire to protect its public image at the expense of the lives of its clients has stained its reputation. The onus is now on the corporation to compensate the wronged victims and their families, and attempt a restoration of its reputation, if at all that is possible.
Bensinger, K., & Vartabedian, R. (2010). Toyota was asked in 2007 to consider installing software to prevent sudden acceleration. The LA Times. Retrieved From <https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2010-mar-14-la-fi-toyota-brake14-2010mar14-story.html>
Lewis, P. R. (2010). Safety First. Mechanical Engineering, 132(9), 32-35.
Liker, J. K. (2010). The way back for Toyota. Industrial Engineer: IE, 42(5), 28-33.
Meredith, J., & Shaffer, S. (2007). Operations Management for MBAs (4th Ed). Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley & sons
Taylor, A. (2010). How Toyota lost its way. Fortune, 162(2), 108-118.
The Gilbert Law Group. (2010). More Toyota products liability lawsuits over sudden acceleration wrongful deaths. Web.