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Ministry Mulled Legal Advice Before Toyota Recall

Posted April. 15, 2010 06:48,   


The Land, Transportation and Maritime Affairs Ministry is known to have considered hiring an outside legal adviser for the recall of three Toyota car models.

The ministry was unsure if it could demand a recall for just a floor mat problem detected by Korea Automobile Testing and Research Institute, but Toyota acknowledged the defect.

The ministry said the institute discovered interference by three types of Korean floor mats used in Toyota cars in February, and told the ministry that this is subject to a recall. In response, the ministry ordered the think tank to ask for outside legal advice, saying, “Won’t a legal issue arise if we hold the Korean floor mat maker responsible?”

“To be honest, we wondered whether to demand a recall from Toyota over Korean floor mats at first. We can claim this as a flaw but in case of a legal dispute, we asked for legal advice,” a ministry source said. The institute tried asking for advice from attorneys at the Korea Transportation Safety Authority and the Korea Legal Research Institute, but stopped after Toyota agreed to the recall last month.

It is unusual for the ministry to consider getting external legal advice before demanding a recall. Kim Jong-hoon, a director at the Korea Consumer Agency in charge of automobile recalls, said, “The Land, Transportation and Maritime Affairs Ministry generally gets advice from the Automobile Manufacturing Flaw Evaluation Committee, which comprises experts including professors, before deciding on a recall. It is rare for the ministry to ask for outside legal advice.” Toyota Motor Korea is also said to have reviewed legal issues with the country’s largest law firm, Kim and Chang.

The ministry’s problem was resolved after Toyota admitted to flaws in its “former floor mats” in negotiations March 11. The ministry and the institute said they were puzzled over the Japanese carmaker’s sudden response since Toyota had initially claimed that there was no problem. Because the ministry was not confident over the recall of the Korean floor mats, Toyota’s response was surprising but also welcome.

The recall does not include the three Korean floor-mats detected by the institute. Only one sentence of recommendation was included in the news release: “Since widely sold floor mats could have interfered with the accelerators, please refrain from using the mats.”

A ministry source said, “Since it was legally ambiguous, we removed the Korean floor mats from the final decision.”

The next question is why Toyota admitted to the floor mat flaws. One automotive expert said, “It is a mystery why Toyota first acknowledged a part that was not even investigated.”

Some suggest that the cornered carmaker, which has suffered a series of recalls around the globe, made a preemptive response to hide other critical flaws.

An employee at the institute in charge of Toyota’s recall said, “Toyota’s recall was not just about the floor mat but a design flaw, such as the form of the floor and location of the pedal. Since a similar problem arose in the U.S., Toyota seems to have acted in advance to stop the floor layout problem from spreading across the world.”