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Lawmaker: Toyota withheld crash lawsuit evidence

WASHINGTON — A House lawmaker said Friday that internal Toyota documents show the automaker deliberately withheld key vehicle design and testing evidence in lawsuits filed by Toyota drivers injured in crashes.

In a letter to Toyota's top North American executive, House oversight committee chairman Edolphus Towns accused Toyota of shielding its testing data on potential problems with Toyota vehicles. Towns wrote that Toyota chose to enter hefty settlements with plaintiffs to avoid disclosing the database, which the lawmaker said was referred to as the "Books of Knowledge."

The Toyota documents "show a systematic disregard for the law and routine violation of court discovery orders in litigation," Towns wrote in the letter to Yoshimi Inaba.

Toyota said in a statement that it is confident it acted appropriately in product liability lawsuits and it looks forward to addressing Towns' concerns. The automaker said it is not uncommon for companies to object to demands for documents made in lawsuits.

"Consistent with that philosophy, we take appropriate steps to maintain the confidentiality of competitive business information and trade secrets," the statement said.

Inaba and Toyota president Akio Toyoda appeared before the committee on Wednesday, the second of two House hearings this week on Toyota's recall of 8.5 million vehicles over safety concerns. Toyota turned over thousands of internal documents before the hearings. A third Toyota hearing is scheduled for next week in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Lawmakers and federal safety regulators have accused Toyota of concealing safety problems over cases of sudden unintended acceleration due to gas pedal problems. The company has pledged to be more responsive to customer complaints and safety warnings.

The oversight committee also subpoenaed records from Dimitrios Biller, the former managing counsel of Toyota's U.S.-based product liability group. Biller, who worked at Toyota from 2003 to 2007, dealt with lawsuits against Toyota for vehicle roll-over crashes. He has since filed a lawsuit against the company.

According to memos Biller provided, the database covers design problems and "countermeasures" that Toyota developed to resolve the problems. It could be searched by vehicles or component part, and was kept by Toyota's technical center. Biller said he discovered the database while working on a case, and warned that it should be released during litigation.

Biller wrote in an e-mail that he agreed to a $1.5 million settlement in 2006 to avoid disclosure in a roll-over case. He also warned that the company needed to keep better track of cases of unintended acceleration.

Biller and his attorney did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.