Whether soybean-coated electrical wires in Toyota vehicles attract "pesky" rats isn't the point -- at least not the legal point -- according to a federal judge in California.
The issue is whether wires that might lure hungry rodents under the hood violate any warranties — and they don't, U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford ruled in June, dismissing a proposed class-action lawsuit against Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
It's another victory for an automaker in such litigation. In May, a different federal judge in California threw out a similar proposed class-action case against American Honda Motor Co.
The Toyota suit alleged that the soybean-based coating causes rats to gnaw through the wires and that "rodent-inflicted damage to the soy wiring can debilitate the vehicles and increase the risk of motor vehicle accidents." Toyota called those claims "meritless."
The allegations may raise a question of design defects, but it's unrelated to the plaintiffs' express and implied warranty claims, Guilford said. Toyota's express warranty promises to repair only "defects in materials" and doesn't cover design defects, the judge noted.
On the implied warranty claim, Guilford ruled there was no defect in the vehicles that made them unfit for ordinary uses.
The "implied warranty claim relies on the actions of a third party — those pesky rats," he said. "Only after the rats do their work does the vehicle become inoperable, if at all ... . The plaintiffs are, in effect, asking to stretch the implied warranty of merchantability to include some promise that no external actor will later harm their vehicles."
Plaintiffs' attorney Jerusalem Beligan told Fixed Ops Journal that his clients were "weighing the costs and benefits" of a possible appeal.
Guilford's reasoning has important legal implications for automakers, according to Neal Walters, a product liability defense lawyer in New Jersey who was not involved in the case.
The ruling "reinforces an ongoing trend of courts recognizing that conventional automotive express warranties do not apply to alleged design defects," he said. "That essentially means a plaintiff can't pursue a warranty claim based on a company's decision on the material to be used."
Walters said the judge "was reluctant to recognize external factors bearing on the automotive company's liability burden," such as the "tenuous" possibility that rats might eat into the wires.
Toyota spokeswoman Karen Nielsen called rodent damage to vehicle wiring "an industrywide issue."
"There are lawsuits pending against a number of OEMs," Nielsen said. "We're seeing that these allegations are not holding up in court."
She said Guilford's decision "reaffirms legal principles that plaintiffs have repeatedly challenged by, for example, enforcing the terms of written warranty contracts, limiting the scope of implied warranty claims and requiring plaintiffs to allege specific facts, especially if accusing automakers of fraud."