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Toyota sued for faulty seatbelt

2007-11-28 15:25

Garance Burke

Los Angeles - 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 made thousands of Corollas equipped with unsafe seatbelts opened Tuesday in California.

A second lawsuit against the carmaker, filed 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 New United Motor Manufacturing plant approved vehicles with broken seatbelts and other serious defects.

Toyota spokesperson Xavier Dominicis declined to comment on either case Tuesday, but said on 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, 60, were driving 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 Tuesday.

The younger Singh said he quickly released his seatbelt buckle but could not 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, 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. "If this little thing can help save lives, why don't they fix it?"

According to Cameron, workers at the NUMMI plant, which is run jointly by General Motors and Toyota, were trained in the "Toyota way" of manufacturing, which many manufacturers emulate because it reduces waste and in principle, empowers individual workers to stop an entire assembly lines if a problem arises.

But Cameron claims that when she spotted defects in Corollas, Tacomas and Pontiac Vibes made there - including twisted seatbelts that could not be securely fastened - her bosses struck back, demoting her twice.

About two-thirds of Toyota Corollas sold in the United States are made at NUMMI, said George Magliano, director of North American car industry research for the consulting firm Global Insight.

A spokesperson 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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