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Toyota Customers Join Whistleblower Lawsuit

Civil trial claims Toyota Motor Corp. made thousands of Corollas equipped with unsafe seatbelts, possibly contributing to at least one death.

STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) — Gurinder Singh's lawyers say he would still have a father if a faulty seatbelt in the family car had unlatched instead of pinning his dad inside the flaming Toyota Corolla where he lost his life.
 
A civil trial on their claim that Toyota Motor Corp., the world's No. 2 automaker, made thousands of Corollas equipped with unsafe seatbelts opened Tuesday in central California.
 
A second lawsuit against the car maker, filed Nov. 6 in nearby Alameda County Superior Court, also threatened to undermine Toyota's squeaky-clean image.
 
Katy Cameron, a whistleblower who works at the plant where the Singh family claims their Corolla was made, has alleged managers at the Fremont, Calif.-based New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant approved vehicles with broken seatbelts and other serious defects.
 
Toyota Motor Corp. spokesman Xavier Dominicis declined to comment on either case Tuesday but told reporters Monday that ''as heart-rending and tragic as this collision was, Toyota has an altogether different view of the facts.''
 
Singh, 19, and his father, Raminder Singh, a 60-year-old security guard, were driving to a shoe shop on Jan. 27, 2003, when their 2002 Toyota Corolla was struck by another vehicle and veered off the road and smashed into a tree, Singh family lawyer Louis Franecke told jurors in his opening statement in San Joaquin County Superior Court on Tuesday.
 
The younger Singh says he quickly released his seatbelt buckle but couldn't free his father from the jammed belt.
 
By the time the son crawled out of the car to seek help, the car's engine had caught fire, and he could do nothing but watch as his father burned to death inside the wreckage, the teen said in an interview before a judge imposed a gag order in the case.
 
''I pushed on the latch with all my strength and it wouldn't budge at all,'' said Gurinder Singh, of Lodi, Calif., a Stockton suburb about 85 miles northeast of San Francisco. ''If this little thing can help save lives why don't they fix it?''
 
Gurinder Singh, his mother and two half brothers seek about $5 million (euro3.36 million) in damages for a death they say the car maker could have prevented by doing more extensive tests of the car's risk for post-crash fires and by modifying the 2002 model's rigid seatbelt design.
 
Defense lawyer Patrick Becherer told jurors the elder Singh died after the car experienced ''severe damages'' caused when it collided with a cherry tree while traveling between 43 mph and 50 mph.
 
''This is a case about responsibility for your actions,'' Becherer said in his opening statement. ''The evidence will show that this tragic death was unnecessary and the crash was caused by the driver's misjudgment.''
 
About two-thirds of all Corollas sold in the United States are made at NUMMI, a nearby auto plant jointly owned and operated by Toyota and General Motors Corp., said George Magliano, director of North American auto industry research for the consulting firm Global Insight.
 
Workers at the plant are trained in a production method many manufacturers emulate because it reduces waste and in principle empowers workers to stop an entire assembly line if a problem arises.
 
But Cameron claims that when she spotted defects in Corollas, Tacomas and Pontiac Vibes made there — including twisted seatbelts that couldn't be securely fastened — her bosses struck back, demoting her twice.
 
After working for 16 years as a certified auditor, she was reassigned to place plastic bumpers in boxes, said her San Francisco lawyer, Kelly Armstrong.
 
Lance Tomasu, a spokesman for NUMMI, said the company could not comment on the Singh trial. But he said NUMMI is thoroughly investigating Cameron's claims.
 
''Quality is a high priority,'' according to a company statement released Tuesday. ''The success of our vehicles in the marketplace is a strong indication that our customers appreciate the quality of NUMMI-built cars and trucks.''
 
A spokesman for NUMMI did not immediately return calls Tuesday.
 
Last week, Toyota in Japan released a statement saying it was ''tackling quality problems as a top priority.''
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