Former Toyota lawyer alleges culture of concealment

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp's 7203.T massive safety recall comes as no surprise to Dimitrios Biller, a former company attorney fighting a lawsuit against the world's No. 1 automaker alleging Toyota has concealed evidence from courts and the U.S. government.

Biller worked at Toyota defending the company in product liability cases from April 2003 until September 2007 and alleges the company systematically hid evidence that would have led to costly trials in the United States.

“This is a company that doesn’t have any respect for the laws in the United States,” Biller said in a telephone interview. “This is a company that has no qualms about violating court orders, concealing or destroying evidence.”

“The evidence involved would have allowed plaintiffs to take their cases to trial,” he added. “This was all done in the interest of saving money.”

Biller filed suit against Toyota in July 2009 and the case centers on some 6,000 internal documents in his possession.

“It’s all a question of hubris. The key issue is not just that they think they are untouchable, they think our laws don’t apply for them.”

“That’s not just me saying that,” he added. “The documents I have say that, the documents I have prove that.”

Toyota disputes that version of events.

“Mr. Biller is a former Toyota attorney who left the company in 2007, and he would have no knowledge about Toyota matters since that time.

“He did not handle unwanted acceleration cases when he worked as an attorney at Toyota.

“He is currently suing Toyota, claiming wrongful termination and emotional distress. As part of his claims, Mr. Biller continues to make inaccurate and misleading allegations about Toyota’s conduct that we strongly dispute and will continue to fight against vigorously,” the company said in a statement.

Biller graduated from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles in 1989 and was a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop before joining Toyota.

He said he is unable to hold down a job since leaving Toyota because he suffered a breakdown.

Biller was involved in defending Toyota in cases involving rollover and crushed roof accidents. He said that after highlighting the issue to his supervisors and making numerous complaints, he was isolated and cut off from others in his group.

He signed a severance agreement in 2007 after being told he would be reassigned to an undetermined position within the company.

The attorney was not involved in cases surrounding the acceleration problem that lies at the root of Toyota’s current recall of 8 million vehicles.

“My complaint goes directly to the credibility of Toyota,” Biller said. “But the credibility of Toyota is directly related to the issue of unintended acceleration.”

His description of Toyota’s approach to the problem is in stark contrast with a public image of a culture of industrial problem-solving that drills into all of its workers that to understand the root of any problem you need to ask “why” (“naze” in Japanese) five times.

Biller said the policy of concealment he witnessed was centrally run from Toyota’s headquarters in Japan.

“The company is run by engineers,” he said. “They make the major decisions at Toyota, even when it comes to what documents to produce.”

Biller described the current recall at Toyota as an “absolute joke,” adding that he believed it was an electronic problem rather than the gas pedal as Toyota claims.

“Toyota can’t admit that it’s an electronic problem because it would be way too expensive to fix in 20 to 25 million cars,” he said. “The bottom line is that they want to save money.”

Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Phil Berlowitz