Ottawa Citizen

It seems class-ac­tion crazi­ness will only ac­cel­er­ate

- ROBERT BOSTELAAR Robert Bostelaar is a Cit­i­zen re­porter and ed­i­tor.

So how do I duck a law­suit? Is there some crafty guy I must avoid, the kind who suck­ers me into hold­ing an en­ve­lope and then sneers “You’ve been served”?

Or per­haps the no­tice will be brought to my door in the small hours by one of Canada Post’s new night-shift car­ri­ers.

But then, given that the source of this law­suit I ex­pect is, yikes, Gen­eral Mo­tors, maybe what I should most fear is the ar­rival of a Cadil­lac-load of lawyers. They’ll block my drive­way un­til I take their blasted pa­per­work.

Lawyers, we all un­der­stand, know op­por­tu­nity when they see it.

And there’s big op­por­tu­nity in car com­pany lit­i­ga­tion, as proven by this week’s news that Toy­ota agreed to spend at least $1.1 bil­lion to set­tle a huge U.S. class-ac­tion suit over claims the Ja­panese au­tomaker’s prod­ucts ac­cel­er­ate with­out cause.

The set­tle­ment will pro­vide pay­ments to own­ers of some 16 mil­lion Toy­ota, Lexus and Scion models sold from 1998 to 2010. And it comes de­spite Toy­ota’s in­sis­tence that no fault was ever found in its elec­tronic throt­tle sys­tem, and that most cases of stuck gas ped­als were prob­a­bly caused by scrunched-up floor mats. Toy­ota re­called more than 10 mil­lion ve­hi­cles be­tween 2009 and 2011 to in­stall new mats and ac­cel­er­a­tor as­sem­blies.

But this cash isn’t meant as com­pen­sa­tion for those in­jured or killed when their gas ped­als stuck and they lacked the wits to jam on the brake (which will stop a car even at full throt­tle) or shift into neu­tral. Those suits are sep­a­rate.

No, this is to mol­lify those own­ers who claimed the value of their cars di­min­ished be­cause of the re­calls and sur­round­ing pub­lic­ity.

We have to feel for them. Re­mem­ber those for­lorn fields of late-model Cam­rys, aban­doned by their own­ers? Re­mem­ber those buy-a-Lada-and-get-two-free Corol­las pro­mo­tions at the used lots?

Ex­cept that never hap­pened. In the ra­zor-sharp used car mar­ket, where value is com­puted by mileage and main­te­nance his­tory and, es­pe­cially, ob­served re­li­a­bil­ity, used Toy­otas con­tin­ued to find quick homes. And, just as Ger­man au­tomaker Audi sur­vived its own bout of sud­den ac­cel­er­a­tion hys­te­ria in the 1980s, Toy­ota the new car­maker emerged from the storm. This week it pre­dicted it will sell a record 9.7 mil­lion cars this year, and even more next year.

Eight Toy­ota and Lexus models — the most for any sin­gle au­tomaker — took awards in J.D. Power’s 2012 Ve­hi­cle De­pend­abil­ity Study. Six of 10 cat­e­gories in a new Con­sumer Re­ports rank­ing re­leased this week were led by Toy­ota and Lexus prod­ucts.

But what mat­ters is that some­one felt a case could be made — or at least pre­sented — mil­lions of car own­ers signed on (hey, why not?) and that Toy­ota de­cided it made bet­ter busi­ness sense to set­tle than fight.

Re­mem­ber those for­lorn fields of late-model Cam­rys, aban­doned by their own­ers? Re­mem­ber those buy-a-Lada-and-get-two-free Corol­las pro­mo­tions at the used lots?

Used to be that we could dis­miss such events as a U.S. deal. But now this coun­try gets its share of clas­s­ac­tion crazi­ness. Toy­ota Canada, for in­stance, faces a num­ber of “on­go­ing” ac­tions over sud­den ac­cel­er­a­tion.

And no sooner had Hyundai dis­closed that it had over­stated its fuel econ­omy by an av­er­age three per cent — and that it would pay own­ers for the ex­tra gas they used plus pro­vide an ex­tra sum for in­con­ve­nience — but class ac­tions were started in On­tario, Bri­tish Columbia and other prov­inces. The law firms be­hind them may not be able to prove any real losses for Hyundai own­ers, but they will no doubt be able to item­ize their fees.

Yet this, I fear, can cut two ways. What if con­sumers get more than ex­pected value from pur­chases? What if GM’s le­gal team scours the au­tomaker’s records and dis­cov­ers that the Saturn LW sta­tion wagon I bought new in 2000 re­mains in the fam­ily’s em­ploy? And that it’s been re­mark­ably trou­ble-free and in fact looks like new, or at least as new as any car can look af­ter 12 Ot­tawa win­ters?

Ob­vi­ously, I should have paid more. Ob­vi­ously, I owe GM money.

But maybe there’s a way to set­tle this. I’ll prom­ise not to sue any au­tomaker who prom­ises not to sue me.

The lawyers will han­dle the pa­per­work.

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