Toyota officials in the United States have testified that they would have questioned company headquarters about its 2004 decision to recall vehicles for steering defects in Japan -- but not the United States -- if they had known then what they know now.
The civil court depositions by Christopher Tinto and Christopher Santucci, Toyota representatives in Washington, have been requested from Toyota by federal investigators.
Tinto and Santucci said that when they prepared an October 2004 report to U.S. regulators about the recall of Japanese pickups and SUVs, they did not know that a number of American drivers also had filed complaints.
Toyota headquarters in Japan had access to the U.S. customer complaints about loss of steering control but didn't notify the company's Washington office, Santucci said in a deposition in the court case.
It was only in September 2005, 10 1/2 months after the Japan recall, that Toyota issued a U.S. recall of similar vehicles for the same problem of defective steering relay rods.
Toyota headquarters "is the kind of brain of the company," Tinto, a Toyota vice president who is the company's liaison to federal regulators, said in a deposition. "We don't have any independent knowledge outside of them."
Toyota had received 41 steering complaints from U.S. consumers before the Japan recall, said a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Vehicle owners have told NHTSA of 15 crashes and three deaths they blame on cracks in Toyota's rods, which connect the steering wheel to the vehicle's wheels.
Tinto's and Santucci's depositions were taken in a California case filed by the family of Michael "Levi" Stewart, who died in 2007 at the age of 18 when he lost control of his Toyota pickup truck and it rolled over.
The Stewarts' lawyer, John Kristensen, of San Mateo, California, provided copies of the depositions to Automotive News after Toyota disclosed last month that it had received a U.S. grand jury subpoena for information about defective steering relay rods.
In May, NHTSA also said it was investigating whether Toyota improperly delayed its 2005 U.S. recall. Automakers are required by law to notify NHTSA of safety defects within five business days.
Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said last week that during the interval between the Japan and U.S. recalls, "Toyota did not wait 10 1/2 months.
"We were investigating other markets" outside Japan, as Toyota said in its 2004 notice to NHTSA, Lyons said. Once the company found evidence of U.S. defects, the company issued a 2005 recall.
Lyons declined further comment, referring Automotive News to Toyota's NHTSA filings.
Complaints started in 2000
In the company's 2004 report, Toyota said it was not issuing a U.S. recall because of "the different steering linkage design" between the right-hand- and left-hand-drive vehicles in the two countries.
Also, "unique operation conditions in Japan, such as frequent standing full-lock turns, such as for narrow parking spaces and close-quarters maneuvering, greatly affects the occurrence of this problem," the report said.
Finally, Toyota "has received field information from the Japanese market, but no similar information from the U.S. market has been received," the report said.
According to the depositions, Kristensen showed Tinto and Santucci more than a half-dozen complaints lodged by U.S. vehicle owners from 2000 to August 2004 -- all before Toyota's Japan recall.
Santucci said he never had seen the complaints before. He said he would have questioned Toyota headquarters about them if he had learned of their existence while helping draft the 2004 filing.
"I would have asked, you know, if I had seen these [U.S. complaints], I would have asked why [headquarters] did not consider them to be similar," Santucci said in his September 2009 deposition.
Tinto, who signed Toyota's NHTSA filings, said that if he had known about the complaints, he would have questioned Toyota's customer quality engineering unit in Japan. This unit handles vehicle performance issues.
"We would likely ask for clarification," he said in his September 2009 deposition.
Tinto, 47, and Santucci, 39, both worked for NHTSA before being hired by Toyota.
Toyota's customer quality engineering unit was headed by company director Hiroyuki Yokoyama at the time of the recalls and is still headed by him, Lyons said.
Kristensen has sought to take Yokoyama's deposition in California. Toyota is objecting, preferring he be questioned in Japan, which has different rules for witnesses than the United States.