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Whistleblower: Toyota-GM plant hid defects

An employee at a California plant run jointly by GM and Toyota is accusing her managers of allowing serious defects to go unchecked, including faulty seat belts and braking.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An employee at a California plant run jointly by General Motors and Toyota is accusing her managers of allowing serious defects to go unchecked, including faulty seat belts and braking, and retaliating when she resisted, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month.

In the case before Alameda County Superior Court in California, Katy Cameron, a certified auditor who has worked for 23 years at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., says management routinely deleted or downgraded defects from her reports on vehicles since 2005.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 6, demands unspecified damages for retaliation against a whistleblower and intentional infliction of emotional distress from NUMMI, Toyota Motor Corp., Toyota in North America and General Motors Corp.

According to legal documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, defects that were intentionally passed over included broken seat belts, faulty headlights, inadequate braking, mirrors falling off, engine oil leaks and steering wheel alignment problems — all in an effort to decrease the number of defects. It is not clear whether any defects resulted in accidents.

When Cameron, a trained expert at spotting defects, complained, her bosses struck back, demoting her twice, accusing her of being crazy and violent, and forcing her to submit to mental fitness tests, according to the documents.

An officer at NUMMI, the Fremont, Calif.-based joint venture, threatened to fire her and then tried to get the personnel department to dismiss her, the lawsuit said.

“NUMMI has done everything in its power to try to break Cameron psychologically and force her from the workplace,” the lawsuit said. “Cameron is an American hero who will not be silenced by multibillion dollar corporations at the expense of hardworking American consumers and families.”

As a result of the persistent on-the-job maltreatment and harassment, Cameron has been getting medical treatment for stress, depression, fatigue, insomnia and panic attacks, it said. She is now on medical leave.

Toyota in Japan declined comment on the lawsuit, saying it was still looking into the allegations. But it did release a statement Tuesday saying it was “tackling quality problems as a top priority.”

NUMMI spokesman Lance Tomasu said in a statement that he could not comment on the lawsuit but quality is a priority for the automaking operation.

“The success of our vehicles in the marketplace is a strong indication that our customers appreciate the quality of NUMMI-built cars and trucks. Nevertheless, we will investigate these claims thoroughly,” the statement said.

GM spokesman Tom Wickham deferred comment to Tomasu.

NUMMI, set up as a joint venture in 1984, produces the Corolla subcompact, Tacoma pickup and Pontiac Vibe wagon. One of the plant’s purposes was to have American workers learn Toyota’s production methods. It has been the topic of numerous labor relations studies, and the company claims teamwork and safety among its “core values.”

Quality problems have been creeping up at Toyota, which traditionally has a stellar reputation for reliability. Toyota’s recalls have ballooned over the last couple of years, and President Katsuaki Watanabe has promised to beef up quality control.

Last month, Consumer Reports said Toyota “is showing cracks in its armor” and will no longer get automatic recommendations from the magazine when it releases new or redesigned vehicles. It also removed several Toyota vehicles from its recommended list because of quality issues.

Toyota, which appears to be on track to beat GM as the world’s biggest automaker by sales as soon as this year, recalled 766,000 vehicles in the United States last year, down from 2.2 million in 2005, but up from 210,000 in 2003.

The lawsuit says NUMMI management blocked Cameron from communicating with other departments, including the quality division at Toyota in Japan, by barring her from meetings and denying her an opportunity to be considered for travel assignments.

The “Toyota way” of manufacturing is emulated by manufacturers around the world not only because it eliminates waste but also because it empowers the individual worker. In principle, workers are encouraged to stop an entire assembly lines if a problem arises.