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Will Toyota’s ‘Black Boxes’ Prove Fruitful for Plaintiffs’ Lawyers?

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  • Will Toyota’s ‘Black Boxes’ Prove Fruitful for Plaintiffs’ Lawyers?

    We don’t want this to sound like some cheesy television ad, but it’s the truth: Read the Wall Street Journal every day, and you’ll without fail learn a lot of stuff you didn’t previously know.

    Like this: Automobiles have black boxes. That’s right. WSJ reporters Dionne Searcey and Kate Linebaugh write on Monday that:
    The box, officially called an “event data recorder,” is a small, square, virtually indestructible container akin to those found on commercial airplanes. Tucked inside the dash or under the front seats of most newer vehicles, it records vehicle and engine speeds as well as brake, accelerator and throttle positions and other data that can help determine the causes of accidents.

    Cool, eh? And why do we bring it up on the Law Blog? Because, report Searcey and Linebaugh, plaintiffs lawyers and safety advocates are stepping up efforts to get access to the data stored inside Toyota’s black boxes, in the hope of getting more information about what’s caused Toyota’s sudden-acceleration problems.

    Thing is, getting a black box, and decoding the information contained inside, isn’t all that easy. Among the issues plaintiffs lawyers are running into: Only Toyota can read the black-box information in its vehicles, and it says it only makes the data available when requested to do so by law enforcement, federal regulators or by court order.

    Safety regulators also cast some doubt on the value of black-box data in determining the cause of an accident. The recorders “are of limited value in crash investigations because they record only a few parameters and only in the last couple of seconds prior to a crash,” said a Transportation Department official.

    But in regard to the black box, an interesting situation is playing out in Auburn, N.Y. Police officials there are trying to recover data from the black box in a 2010 Toyota Camry, hoping to shed light on the cause of a fatal accident on Nov. 27. According to police, a 55-year-old woman drove through three downtown stoplights at high speed and crashed into another vehicle, killing its driver. The woman in the Camry told officers it was like the car had a mind of its own, prompting them to further investigate whether sudden acceleration may have played a role.

    Getting data from the black box is “the last key to the puzzle,” said Auburn Police Lt. Shawn Butler.

    According to the Auburn police, an investigator from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration arrived in town and took the Camry’s data recorder, saying he planned to take it to California, where Toyota has its U.S. headquarters, so their expert could download the data, along with that from several other black boxes from crashes across the nation.

    Lt. Butler said he is concerned that Toyota, which could potentially be at fault in the accident, is the only party able to read the data. “We’re at their mercy, and it doesn’t give you a good feeling,” he said.

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