The Prius was one of the great automobile success stories of the last decade. Toyota's hybrid took off very fast -- too fast, it turned out, when owners found their accelerators sticking. And now, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has announced that Toyota had agreed to a $29 million settlement deal.
This is in addition to a deal valued as high as a billion dollars, which Toyota reached late last year with Toyota owners who'd been taken for a ride by both the faulty cars and the car company, which stonewalled them for years.
In "The Prius Can Take Owners on a Wild Ride," an April 2009 Westword cover story, Paul Knight detailed some of the problems that owners had encountered with their hybrids. Here's his account of what happened to Ted and Elizabeth James of Eagle:
Ted James, a middle-school math teacher in Eagle, had received a $10,000 Toyota Time grant given to 35 math teachers around the country to develop inventive programs. James used his money to buy equipment to monitor the water quality of a local watershed, and his students used advanced math techniques to analyze the data they collected.
In 2002, Toyota paid for James, along with the other Toyota Time winners, to travel to company headquarters and talk about their projects. During a lunch break one day, Toyota executives introduced the group to the Prius. Each teacher was outfitted with one of the hybrids for a day of driving around Torrance. "I thought they were the coolest thing ever," Ted James remembers. He and his wife, Elizabeth, an elementary-school teacher, bought their first Prius three years later.
"I was very proud because we were the first teachers in the parking lot to be sporting a Prius," Ted says.
On August 10, 2006, Elizabeth James was driving the car east on Interstate 70 toward Denver to catch an early-morning flight. Near the small town of Lawson, she pressed the brakes to slow down, and when she let off the pedal, the Prius took off. The car wouldn't slow down "no matter how hard I pressed on the brake," she remembers, so she used her left foot to slam down the emergency brake. Nothing.
The brakes spewed blue smoke from the back of the car, and when Elizabeth glanced down, the speedometer displayed 90 mph and the Prius was rocketing toward a car in the slow lane. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, Elizabeth whipped around that car along the shoulder of the interstate, exited the Lawson ramp, ran a stop sign, passed a couple of people walking in the road and steered into a grassy field when the feeder cut to the left.
"She said she felt like the pilot of a plane that was trying to crash-land," Ted says. "So she was looking for a place to crash the car, and that was one of the things that were really tough: She thought she was going to die and had enough time to think about it."
The Prius sped through a wooded area, clipped a weather monitoring shed, flipped and landed in a river.
Elizabeth survived the wreck, but her legs and back were banged up and she still hobbles, despite a year's worth of physical therapy. Scar tissue on her intestines requires her to drink MiraLAX for the rest of her life to ease stomach pains.
After the crash, Ted James enlisted the help of a childhood friend, attorney Kent Spangler (who practiced family law at the time and now is a magistrate in Fort Collins), to steer the Jameses through arbitration with Toyota. They wanted Elizabeth's medical bills -- about $15,000 -- paid and to have the smashed Prius examined for a cause of the wreck. "You'd think Toyota would be interested in how their car functioned in that crash," James says. "My wife's brother and sister owned Priuses, and we were really worried that this could happen to someone else. Toyota's whole reaction was really disconcerting. It was like 'deny everything.'"
And that's just one of the many, many stories that Prius owners told Toyota -- and then their lawyers.
And now, with New Jersey's Attorney General's Office in the lead and attorneys general from three dozen other states joining in, Toyota has agreed to a $29 million settlement deal for problems connected with unintended acceleration in various Toyota and Lexus models -- and for concealing those safety issues.
Colorado's portion of the settlement totals more than $650,000, which will go toward funding future consumer protection investigations and consumer education in Colorado. "If Toyota promotes the safety of its automobiles in its advertising, it must have sound engineering data to back it up," Suthers said in announcing the deal yesterday. "Further, Toyota has agreed to change its corporate culture regarding disclosure of safety issues and the company may now move forward with this matter behind it."
The states alleged that Toyota engaged in unfair and deceptive practices when it failed to disclose known safety defects with accelerator pedals in an expeditious manner. As part of the settlement, Toyota has agreed that U.S. officials will have timely access to information and the authority to fully participate in all decisions affecting the safe operation of Toyota vehicles advertised and sold domestically.
Toyota will also maintain an additional $5 million to directly reimburse Toyota and Lexus owners for out-of-pocket expenses incurred for costs including towing expenses, taxi fares and rental car fees that are related to recalls by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of various Toyota and Lexus models.
The model and year of impacted cars:
2005-2010 Avalon 2007-2010 Camry 2009-2010 Corolla 2008-2010 Highlander 2007-2010 Lexus ES350 2006-2010 Lexus IS250 2006-2010 Lexus IS350 2010 Lexus RX 350 2010 Lexus RX 450h 2009-2010 Matrix 2009-2010 Pontiac Vibe 2004-2009 Prius 2009-2010 RAV4 2008-2010 Sequoia 2004 Sienna 2005-2010 Tacoma 2004-2010 Tundra 2009-2010 Venza
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Consumers who believe they are entitled to refunds should contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331 and Lexus at 1-800-255-3987; the lines are staffed from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. MST Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
From our archives: "Before the Prius: Ten compact cult cars to remember."