Toyota awarded $2.6M over whistleblower's claims
Published: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 8:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 8:27 p.m.
ORANGE, Calif. — An arbitrator has awarded Toyota Motor Corp. $2.6 million in damages from a former in-house attorney who accused the automaker of withholding evidence in rollover cases and made confidential documents public to bolster his allegations.
Retired federal Judge Gary Taylor on Tuesday ordered Dimitrios P. Biller to pay Toyota $2.5 million for unauthorized disclosures of confidential information and $100,000 in punitive damages. Taylor also issued a permanent injunction instructing Biller to return the confidential documents that he obtained during his employment.
Some of the internal papers were subpoenaed last year by a U.S. congressional investigation into safety issues with Toyota vehicles.
A message for Biller's attorney, Jeffrey Allen, was not immediately returned Wednesday.
Biller, who now runs LTD Consulting in Pacific Palisades, Calif., did not immediately return a message left Wednesday at his business.
In his ruling, Taylor said Biller believed he was acting as whistleblower, but that did not give him the right to disseminate a client's confidential information.
Biller worked for Toyota for four years defending the Japanese automaker from lawsuits that blamed rollover accidents on faulty manufacturing. He left the company in 2007 and claimed he was protected in his disclosures because he spoke out as a matter of public safety.
Taylor disagreed, saying even if true, that did not trump the attorney-client privilege.
"Mr. Biller is still bound by a greater rule: the attorney's underlying fundamental duty to safeguard his client's confidences, attorney-client privileged or not," the judge wrote.
"Toyota takes its legal obligations very seriously and works hard to uphold the highest professional and ethical standards," said Christopher Reynolds, Toyota's group vice president and general counsel, in a written statement. "We are gratified that the credibility of Toyota's legal organization and the integrity of our legal professionals have been validated."
Taylor said the damage the automaker suffered from disclosures of the internal documents was "real and extensive." Those disclosures included postings on Biller's website, seminars, media interviews and his decision to send thousands of pages of documents to a Texas court hearing Toyota cases without a subpoena.
The judge noted in his order that arbitration agreements are usually confidential, but he allowed Toyota to make the ruling public to neutralize the effect of one-sided and unauthorized disclosures during arbitration that appeared to bring prejudice against the automaker.
Toyota has recalled more than 10 million vehicles worldwide over the last year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has received about 3,000 reports of sudden, unintended acceleration from Toyota drivers in the past decade, including 93 deaths. The government, however, has confirmed only five deaths from two crashes.
In September, Toyota paid $10 million to settle a lawsuit with the relatives of four people killed last year in a high-speed crash near San Diego when a driver was unable to stop a runaway Lexus. That crash galvanized attention around possible safety flaws in some Toyota models.