If Audi of America's experience is any indication, Toyota could be defending itself against unintended acceleration lawsuits for decades.
Even though Audi was exonerated by Transport Canada in 1988 and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1989 of unintended acceleration allegations, the automaker is still fighting a version of the original class-action lawsuit filed 25 years ago.
The Audi case -- originally filed in U.S. Circuit Court in Cook County, Ill. -- was settled, then vacated. A judge recused himself, setting back matters. Court jurisdictions have flip-flopped. The case has been dismissed repeatedly, with six amended complaints filed. Still, the lawsuit drags on, unresolved, as new generations of lawyers pick up where their elders left off.
What should worry Toyota is that the Audi lawsuit involved about 300,000 units of the 1978-86 Audi 5000. By contrast, Toyota has recalled more than 10 million vehicles, across numerous nameplates, for sticky gas pedals and for floor mats that could jam gas pedals. Toyota's universe of affected, applicable vehicles is 33 times larger.
Tom McDonald, Audi's public relations manager during the sudden acceleration days, was shocked recently when he received notice from Audi's outside counsel that he might be deposed to testify in the case.
"This story is never going to go away," said McDonald, who last worked for Volkswagen of America, Audi of America's parent, in 1989. "They want to know about something I am alleged to have said publicly or wrote in a press release back then."
McDonald sees history repeating itself with Toyota. "The similarities between what happened with Toyota now and Audi then are remarkably similar," he said in an interview. "The way some of the media treated it, jumping to conclusions, blaming the company without the full benefit of technical information ... it was the same thing."
But Toyota must tread carefully between doing what is right for itself legally and doing what is right for its public image, McDonald said.
"Even though Audi was wronged as a company, you don't pile on some poor family that has suffered loss," he said. "It's how you react, how aggressive or passive you become. You have to show compassion."