SANTA ANA, California (Reuters) - Southern California prosecutors filed the first U.S. consumer protection lawsuit against Toyota Motor Corp on Friday, claiming it had engaged in “fraud” by hiding evidence of dangerous vehicle defects.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said his office along with private attorneys sued the U.S. sales arm of Toyota, charging that the world’s top-selling automaker has endangered the public with defective vehicles, and engaged in deceptive business practices.
“Against this backdrop of fraud and concealment, Toyota has for decades touted its reputation for safety and reliability and knew that people bought its vehicles because of that reputation and yet purposefully chose to conceal and suppress the existence and nature of defects,” said the 18-page lawsuit filed on Friday morning.
The suit seeks to keep Toyota “from continuing to endanger the public through the sale of defective vehicles and deceptive business practices.”
A Toyota spokesman said the company had no immediate comment.
Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles globally to address the risk that accelerator pedals on a range of its vehicles could become stuck because of a loose floor mat or a glitch in the pedal assembly.
Unintended acceleration in the company’s Toyota and Lexus vehicles has been linked to at least five U.S. crash deaths since 2007. Authorities are investigating reports alleging 47 other fatalities over the past decade.
The suit charges that Toyota knew about the defects in “selling and leasing hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks with defects that caused sudden unexpected and uncontrollable acceleration.”
Rackauckas told a news conference that his office will work with private attorneys from Robinson, Calcagnie and Robinson of Newport Beach in Orange County.
Rackauckas, a Republican who is up for re-election this year, defended his office’s filing of the suit and the hiring of the private attorneys.
The news conference drew a lone demonstrator carrying a green sign that read, “I (heart) Toyota.” The demonstrator, Kerri Wilson, said her husband worked for Toyota. She briefly engaged a Rackauckus staff member over the DA’s involvement in the case, suggesting that it was done for political gain.
Rackauckas told reporters he was becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of consumers and that his office has jurisdiction because Toyota’s U.S. headquarters is in California. He also said that the private attorneys will be paid from any proceeds of the lawsuit.
Orange County is just north of San Diego County, where a California Highway Patrol trooper and three members of his family were killed in a crash last August involving a Toyota vehicle. It abuts Los Angeles County, where Toyota has its U.S. sales headquarters in Torrance.
Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit, editing by Matthew Lewis