A lawsuit against the Rhino line of ATVs has been moved back to Texas. Victoria County residents Laurie and Drew Perry have sued Yamaha Motor Corporation USA alleging injuries suffered due to a defective design. The lawsuit was first filed in Texas in 2009. Yamaha […]
As a Missouri defective automobile attorney, I was pleased to see reports that the federal Department of Transportation is looking into allegations about unsafe rental cars. As the Detroit News reported Nov. 23, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating how quickly car rental companies make repairs to vehicles in their fleets that are subject to recalls. The agency said it was acting in response to allegations that people have suffered injuries or deaths because rental car companies failed to pull recalled vehicles off the road. There has already been one high-profile case fitting that description, in which two young women died after their vehicle caught fire on a California highway. Their mother co-founded an auto safety group that has asked the FTC to require repairs before rental cars go back on the road.
The California case involved sisters Jacqueline and Raechel Houck, ages 20 and 24. They died in 2004 after the Chrysler PT Cruiser they had rented caught fire on the road, causing them to hit a tractor-trailer. Later, it was discovered that the PT Cruiser had been recalled for exactly this problem — a risk of catching fire under the hood. Their parents sued Enterprise Rent-A-Car for renting the young women a car that was recalled because of the possibility of catching fire while in use. In fact, the family claims Enterprise rented the car at least four times after receiving the recall notice. After fighting the lawsuit for five years, Enterprise settled this summer for $15 million. A spokesperson for the car rental industry said no law requires companies to repair recalled vehicles before they go back on the road, but that most companies pull recalled cars from their fleets.
I hope the NHTSA investigation confirms that statement. But as a St. Louis auto defect lawyer, I believe the financial incentives at play here work against safety, not for it. Car rental companies only have so many vehicles, and when they place vehicles out of service, they can serve fewer customers. That leads to less money, of course. As a result, the companies have an incentive to keep as many cars on the road as possible. Even when the risk of a lawsuit is taken into account, some managers may judge that the risk of an accident is less desirable than the near-certainty of not making money while the vehicle is grounded. This policy makes sense if your only goal is to make money — but it’s an unacceptable safety risk for rental car customers and the people they happen to pass on the road.
The terrifying and tragic story of California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor and his family has come to a resolution, in the form of an out-of-court settlement with Toyota. As a St. Louis automotive product liability lawyer, I hope that the settlement helps Saylor’s family to gain some sense of closure amidst their sorrow. The accident that killed Saylor and his family became famous last year because it was one of the first stories of deaths blamed on Toyota and Lexus vehicles that had unintended acceleration problems. Saylor was a law enforcement officer trained in handling vehicles at very high speeds, making this tragedy particularly hard to blame on the mistakes or inexperience of the driver.
Saylor’s story is a particularly dramatic version of the kind of tragedy that I see frequently in my work as a Missouri automotive defect attorney. In August 2009, Saylor, 45, was driving a 2009 Lexus E350, with his wife, Cleofe, 45; their daughter Mahala, 13; and Cleofe’s brother, Chris Lastrella, 39; just outside San Diego. Lastrella called 911 to report that the car’s accelerator pedal was stuck. The Lexus raced down the freeway at speeds up to 120 miles per hour, and Saylor was unable to stop it. Lastrella ended the call by saying “Hold on and pray.” The Lexus hit another vehicle and landed in a ravine. Everyone in the Lexus was killed.
The devastated Saylor and Lastrella families filed a defective product claim against Toyota, the maker of Lexus vehicles, and a negligence lawsuit against the Bob Baker Lexus dealership, which owned the loaner car that Officer Saylor was driving while his own car was being repaired. In the negligence suit, the families allege that the loaner car had the wrong floor mats installed, and according to the Sheriff’s Department, the floor mats may have caused the accelerator to get stuck. The families’ claims against the dealership have not been resolved, but Toyota has reached a confidential out-of-court settlement with the families. Meanwhile, Bob Baker and his attorneys are concerned that Toyota did not stand with them, and wonder whether Toyota plans to help the Saylors and Lastrellas make the case that the dealership was negligent.
This case is of interest to southern Illinois vehicle defect attorneys like me because so many people have been affected by Toyota’s sudden acceleration problems. There are millions of Toyota owners, and at least 93 people are believed to have died because of this defect for which 8 million cars were recalled. It’s possible that there could be more we don’t even know about. Toyota has insisted that the vast majority of sudden acceleration has happened because of driver error, not because of defects in their cars. Toyota’s attempts to quash research into its products’ design flaws suggest that the company is not as interested as it should be in making sure there is no defect — or learning how to make sure that sudden acceleration problems do not continue. But this out-of-court settlement may signal a new willingness to make amends, if not to acknowledge the problem.