Toyota dealer held liable for damages: Aftermarket must recognize changing car use habits

This week’s news that a Toyota dealer was ordered to pay $15.7 million in damages to an accident victim for poor maintenance drew record interest among VehicleServicePros readers. The ruling, which was announced five years after the accident occurred, demonstrates the critical public safety role that the automotive aftermarket plays in society. In this situation, an automotive dealer was held responsible for the safety of the vehicle.

The automotive aftermarket has a good track record for maintaining vehicle safety. Given the sheer number of aftermarket repair shops in the country, the fact that these incidents are so rare speaks to the aftermarket industry’s high level of competence.

But one issue that the aftermarket must pay attention to is the growth in car sharing. Like auto rental and auto leasing, car sharing offers consumers an option to owning their own vehicles. With more parties involved in the process, communication becomes more important in maintaining vehicle safety. Car sharing is rising in popularity.

The aftermarket industry has demonstrated the ability to protect public safety. But as consumers seek more options for using cars, such as car sharing, the aftermarket industry must recognize there will be more possibilities for problems. Hence, the aftermarket industry must continue to support its training programs and continue to take its public safety role as seriously as ever.

The news stories about the ruling did not give a lot of information about the maintenance that the court deemed at fault, which is often the case with lawsuits. William Schaefer, an attorney for Central City Toyota, refused to comment on the case when contacted by Professional Tool & Equipment News.

In the case reported this week, the customer, Dr. Noreen Lewis, rented the car from PhillyCarShare, the exclusive car sharing network from Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

The story which PTEN reported on 3-25-13 noted that mechanical failure due to faulty maintenance was the cause of the accident, which left Dr. Lewis with virtually no use of her left arm. 

Law360, a news source that covers litigation in U.S. federal district courts, carried some information in addition to what PTEN reported on Monday. Law360 reported that when Dr. Lewis picked up the vehicle, she noticed that the exterior was dented and the interior was dirty. But when she asked PhillyCarShare for a different vehicle, the company assured her that the Toyota Sienna minivan was safe to operate and said it didn't have any similarly sized vehicles available.

Following is a synopsis of the facts, according to Law360:

As Lewis drove the minivan, she felt the steering wheel “shimmy,” and the vehicle's check engine light came on, so she contacted PhillyCarShare, and the representative told Lewis that if she took the car to a service station, the company would pay for the service.

Lewis knew there was an auto service station at a Sam's Club near a restaurant where she and her family were headed for dinner, so she decided to drop the vehicle off there, the memo said.

But on their way to the Sam's Club, the minivan's wheels locked and the vehicle started skidding. Lewis tried to steer the vehicle, but the wheel was difficult to move, and the car skidded across the road, struck the barrier and rolled into a ditch, flipping over three times.

Lewis suffered serious injuries, including lacerations to the ear, face, head and thighs, a severe cardiac contusion, spine fracture and intestinal injuries. She is now permanently disabled and no longer can work as a physician or in any other capacity, according to the pretrial memo.

At the time of the accident, Central City Toyota was the sole maintenance provider for the Sienna, since PhillyCarShare outsources its maintenance, the pretrial memo said. And between October 2006 and December 2007, the dealership serviced the Sienna eight times. The crash was caused by a worn and deteriorated ball joint in the Sienna's front passenger side, according to an expert retained by Lewis and PhillyCarShare.

The expert opined that the damage to the ball joint was long-standing, and a Toyota engineer testified that ball-joint deterioration takes “quite a long time ... over a long period of time,” according to the pretrial memo.