ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The world's largest automaker also has been fielding some tough questions right and left from Congress, from regulators, from consumers and also from lawyers. As we just heard, there is a congressional investigation underway, as well as a federal criminal probe. And that's just the start.
As NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, Toyota is also facing a tidal wave of civil lawsuits.
WENDY KAUFMAN: Roughly three dozen deaths have already been linked to defects in Toyota vehicles. Most of the allegations haven't been proven, but the number of lawsuits related to those deaths is rising steadily.
Byron Stier, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, says the company is also facing legal challenges from shareholders and from those whose cars have been recalled.
Professor BYRON STIER (Southwestern Law School): What Toyota is looking at is a battle that has a variety of stages that will take place in a variety of different courts. And they've really got to be fighting on multiple fronts all at once.
KAUFMAN: Let's examine the various types of cases, beginning with wrongful death.
Mr. TODD WALBURG (Attorney, Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein): These are product liability lawsuits.
KAUFMAN: Attorney Todd Walburg is with Lieff Cabraser, a law firm that's representing individuals injured or killed when Toyota vehicles accelerated unintentionally and couldn't be stopped.
Mr. WALBURG: What we have to prove is that there was a design defect. Or we could prove a failure to warn. At this point, we're pursuing both theories.
KAUFMAN: He says they intend to show that Toyota has known about the sudden acceleration problem for years, but didn't warn consumers. Asked about the company's likely defense, he says the automaker will probably blame the drivers, saying they hit the gas when they thought they'd hit the brakes. But Walburg says a so-called black box, an event data recorder on many of these vehicles, could provide some answers.
Mr. WALBURG: About the crash, the speeds, braking and so forth, so when we're able to see what happened just before this crash, I think Toyota will have a tough time explaining that it wasn't caused by a defect in the vehicle.
KAUFMAN: The automaker will also have to defend against potential class-action suits for things such as emotional distress and the diminished value of their cars.
University of South Carolina law Professor David Owen says in the past courts have generally been unresponsive to both of those claims.
Professor DAVID OWEN (Law, University of South Carolina): Diminished value is difficult, because while Kelley Blue Book has reduced the value at three percent, that is sort of a fictitious loss for somebody who plans to keep his Toyota anyway.
KAUFMAN: But he says the claims of emotional distress could be problematic for Toyota. For example, a young mother's anxiety over having to drive her kids to school in a car that might not be safe.
Prof. OWEN: Now, whether that's worth $100 or a $1,000 is anybody - or $10,000 is, you know, big question.
KAUFMAN: The third category of lawsuits involve shareholders. Attorney Darren Robbins says Toyota investors lost hundreds of millions of dollars because they relied on statements made by Toyota which turned out to be false and misleading. For example, comments made last year that floor mats, as opposed to something more complicated, were to blame for unintended acceleration.
Mr. DARREN ROBBINS (Attorney): And we believe that the objective evidence will show that when these representations were made, they were made with - at a minimum, a reckless disregard for the truth, and in some cases, an intent to mislead investors.
KAUFMAN: Asked about the lawsuits, a Toyota spokesman said as a matter of policy the company doesn't comment on pending litigation.
Law Professor Stier suggests that Toyota's legal predicament is particularly challenging, because whatever it says or does to address safety concerns could be turned on its head.
Prof. STIER: Toyota is coming out to the microphones and making statements. Is it an admission of responsibility, of negligence, of some kind of defect in their cars? That can be trotted out in court against them.
KAUFMAN: And as if all that wasn't enough, Toyota has to contend with a whistleblower, a former company lawyer who says he can prove the automaker hid evidence of safety defects in connection with previous lawsuits. Toyota emphatically rejects his allegations. Earlier this month, the automaker said costs related to the massive recalls could total about $2 billion. The lawsuits could cost Toyota even more.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.