by: Scott D. Gilchrist , Attorney
Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. (SRS, Inc.), an automotive safety research firm, recently announced that it has settled a lawsuit against the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) to force the disclosure of documents related to sudden acceleration of Toyota and Lexus vehicles. In the lawsuit, SRS, Inc. claimed that the DOT violated the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by failing to produce investigatory documents related to a 2011 recall of Toyota and Lexus vehicles for unintended acceleration. Under the terms of the settlement, the DOT agreed to turn over investigatory documents, videos and photos related to the agency’s involvement with a 2011 recall of Toyota and Lexus models for alleged accelerator entrapment by interior trim.

The FOIA settlement is part of a long-running investigation related to the alleged sudden acceleration of Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Although complaints had arisen before, the issue of unintended acceleration by Toyota and Lexus vehicles became highly publicized in mid-2009, after and the 2009 Lexus ES350 driven by an off-duty highway patrol officer suddenly accelerated to a high rate of speed. The officer lost control of the Lexus, which collided with another vehicle and rolled down an embankment before catching fire. The officer and three members of his family were killed in the accident.
The tragedy led to intense public scrutiny of The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency charged by the Department of Transportation to ensure the safety of U.S. roadways. NHTSA is responsible for setting vehicle safety standards, investigating possible safety defects, and tracking safety-related recalls. Media inquiries revealed that prior to the 2009 crash that killed the off-duty officer, NHSTA had conducted nine investigations into unintended acceleration events involving Toyota vehicles. And The Los Angeles Times reported in 2010 that at least 34 people had died in accidents involving Toyota vehicles that allegedly accelerated out of control between 2000 and 2010.
Toyota began a massive recall in late 2009 to address the problem of unintended acceleration and identified the problem as accelerator pedal entrapment due to floor mat interference. At that time, Toyota also stated that it planned to reconfigure the accelerator pedal to address the issue of accelerator entrapment. However, drivers continued to file complaints of unintended acceleration and navigated frightening incidents of spontaneous acceleration.
In early 2010, the NHTSA began a deeper investigation into the Toyota acceleration issue and enlisted NASA engineers, who have expertise in computer controlled electronic systems, to help determine the reasons for the acceleration problems. Class action lawsuits have been filed claiming that Toyota concealed information regarding the unintended acceleration issue in order to continue selling vehicles and that this major defect has had a substantial impact on the resale value of these vehicles. Those proposed class actions are ongoing.
Toyota and Lexus owners who would like more information about the class action against Toyota should contact an experienced attorney to learn of their legal rights and options.