L.A. City Attorney’s Office Launches Toyota Probe
By Christina Villacorte
City News Service
The Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office Tuesday launched a preliminary investigation into potential public safety hazards posed by the problems that prompted mass recalls of certain Toyota and Lexus vehicles.
“It’s a preliminary investigation to determine if we could or should file a lawsuit,” said Chief Assistant City Attorney Jeffrey Isaacs, who is in charge of the probe.
He urged members of the public who bought Toyota or Lexus vehicles over the last 10 years to fill out a form on the city attorney’s Web site–www.atty.lacity.org–and describe any incidents of sudden unintended acceleration, braking or steering problems.
Toyota and Lexus owners can also e-mail the information to email@example.com.
Isaacs said City Attorney Carmen Trutanich wants to be “more proactive” in determining if a lawsuit is warranted.
“The city attorney is responsible for the health, safety and welfare of the residents of the city of Los Angeles,” Isaacs said, noting “we have more Toyotas on the road than any other city; we own, I think, more Toyotas (in our fleet) than any other municipality; and the city, through its pension funds, is a major investor in Toyota.”
“The city attorney wants to get to the bottom of this, and if legal action is necessary to make sure that the problem is solved and victims are made whole, then so be it,” he said.
Isaacs said if complaints about malfunctions can be verified, “the city attorney is authorized by state law to file an unfair competition law action on behalf of the people of the state of California in which he could seek injunctive relief, civil penalties–which could be very large in this instance, depending on the number of incidents–and also, most importantly, restitution for victims.”
Isaacs said the unfair competition law “basically says it’s unlawful for any person–which could include a corporation or group or association or organization of persons–to engage in any unlawful unfair or fraudulent business act or practice.”
The City Attorney’s Office has used the same law against slumlords, hospitals accused of dumping homeless people on Skid Row, health insurance companies accused of illegally canceling coverage and, most recently, a Hollywood Boulevard building owner accused of illegally posting a supergraphic ad, Isaacs said.
Such a lawsuit is “filed in the name of the people, like a criminal action, but filed in civil court,” he said.
“Because we’re the City Attorney’s Office, we don’t have to go through the normal hoops and procedures that would have to be filed in a class-action (lawsuit),” Isaacs said.
“For instance, in a class-action, the only victims are the people who actually suffered injury or damage. We’re not limited to that. In our case, the penalties could be based upon the number of vehicles sold, the number of false advertisements (that) ran, the number of misrepresentations made,” he said.
Isaacs said the city attorney could seek restitution for Toyota and Lexus owners who have been hurt by malfunctions and/or who have had the value of their cars diminished because of safety concerns.
Among those owners is the city of Los Angeles, which has 750 Toyotas in its fleet, Isaacs said.
Isaacs added the city attorney could also seek civil penalties of up to $2,500 per violation of the law.
“Violations could be anything from selling an unsafe car to each false advertisement,” he said.
Isaacs said commercials that state Toyota and Lexus vehicles are “safe and reliable” may constitute false advertising if there is proof that the vehicles “accelerate to 120 mph when you least expect it.”
He said the city attorney is pulling accident reports and may use testimony from the congressional hearings on the recalls.
If the city were to be awarded penalties in the case, Isaacs said, “the criminal branch of the City Attorney’s Office keeps half and then gives half to the county–but anything recovered from an unfair competition law, any penalties, can be used only to enforce consumer protection laws.”
“If, on the other hand, the city attorney brought an action in the name of the city–not the people–based upon our 750 cars (in the city fleet) being worthless now, that money goes to the city,” Isaacs said.
Asked when the decision would be made on whether to file a lawsuit, Isaacs answered: “I think this will probably be measured more in weeks than months, just because this is so unusual in that there’s so much information coming out.”
“What other case can you remember where you had top-level executives appearing in front of Congress and testifying for a whole day and making statements that frankly could be incriminating and could lead to criminal liability,” he said.
Toyota has recalled millions of vehicles worldwide because of safety concerns.