February 26, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 2:16:45 pm
There's no shortage of twists and turns relating to Toyota's troubled acceleration system and massive vehicle recall - just ask attorney Robert Hilliard , who has received national attention for his involvement in several high-profile Toyota sudden acceleration cases. In a week when Akio Toyoda made an unprecedented appearance on Capital Hill to apologize for the automaker's serious problem, Hilliard has been front-and-center in news stories, including a fascinating development relating to three Minnesota residents killed in a 2006 crash involving a runaway Toyota Camry.
This story is particularly interesting because a so-called "Toyota Defense" could free a man now serving prison time after he was blamed for causing the wreck and convicted of criminal vehicular homicide. Newspapers nationwide and Good Morning America have already weighed in this story.
Writes the Associated Press:
Koua Fong Lee's accident is among a growing number of cases, some long resolved, that are getting new attention since Toyota admitted its problems with sudden acceleration were more extensive than originally believed. Numerous lawsuits involving Toyota accidents have been filed over the recent revelations, and attorneys expect the numbers will climb.
A jury didn't believe him, and a judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. But now, new revelations of safety problems with Toyotas have Lee pressing to get his case reopened and his freedom restored. Relatives of the victims - who condemned Lee at his sentencing three years ago - now believe he is innocent and are planning to sue Toyota. The prosecutor who sent Lee to prison said he thinks the case merits another look.
"I know 100 percent in my heart that I took my foot off the gas and that I was stepping on the brakes as hard as possible," Lee said in an interview Wednesday at the state prison in Lino Lakes. "When the brakes were looked at and we were told that nothing was wrong with the brakes, I was shocked."
"Toyota sat idly by while a potentially innocent man took the blame for this tragic incident," says Mr. Hilliard, co-founder of the Texas-based law firm of Hilliard Muńoz Guerra LLP. "My clients now believe that Mr. Lee tried to stop the car, but that Toyota's faulty throttle and braking systems are the true culprits in this case."
Hilliard and his firm are handling several cases involving people hurt or killed by runaway Toyotas, including a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of all Texas residents who have purchased Toyota and Lexus vehicles with faulty electronic throttle control systems.
February 26, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 1:41:30 pm
D Magazine dubbed it "The Good Ol' Girls Club" when some of the city's most talented big-law-firm attorneys(who happened to be female) got together and hung a shingle back in 2008. Wrote D Magazine at the time: Even in 2008, a woman-owned firm in the male-dominated Dallas legal landscape is notable. The ladies' new venture is one of only a handful of women-owned firms in the state and an anomaly locally.
Who knew what was on the economic horizon for new businesses in 2008, but Taber Estes Thorne & Carr charged through 2009, steadily adding new attorneys and clients along the way. The firm reached an important milestone this month - with the addition of associate Kevin Muenster, Taber Estes is no longer a law firm composed solely of female lawyers. Firm co-founder Jessica Thorne says Muenster's arrival should be a surprise considering they've been committed to diversity from the start.
A graduate of Sam Houston State University and Baylor Law School, Mr. Muenster previously served as a judicial law clerk to the Hon. Anne Gardner of the Second Court of Appeals of Texas in Fort Worth. He also worked at two respected Dallas-area firms prior to joining Taber Estes Thorne & Carr. "We know that great lawyers come in all different shapes, sizes, genders, colors, nationalities and backgrounds, and we never intended this to be an all-female firm," says Thorne.
February 9, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 4:24:54 pm
As Toyota scrambles to repair manufacturing defects responsible for sudden acceleration, not to mention the automaker's reputation for quality products - the latest "mechanical solution" doesn't get to the heart of the matter, says Texas attorney Bob Hilliard, who filed a class-action lawsuit against the carmaker last week. Instead of focusing on a perceived mechanical flaw in the gas pedal mechanism, Toyota engineers should instead be looking at the vehicles' electronic controls. The concerns have resulted in a recall of millions of vehicles -- the largest safety recall ever mounted by an automaker.
"Toyota has known about this problem far too long, but inexplicably has not chosen to address what appears to be the true culprit, electrical problems in the faulty throttle controls," says Hilliard, who represents a couple whose Toyota Avalon crashed after unexpectedly accelerating through a stop sign last month. "First Toyota said it was the floor mats, and now they claim it is the gas pedal. Perhaps they'll fix the problem some day, but my clients and I aren't holding our collective breath."
Despite assurances from Toyota that there is a mechanical fix to the sudden acceleration problem, federal regulators have launched a probe into the electronic throttle system, the Washington Post reports. The government's review will look at the electronics systems across all manufacturers as well as the possibility that engine operation could be disrupted by electromagnetic interference caused by power lines or other sources. The automaker, meanwhile, attributed incidents of unintended acceleration to improper floor mats and sticky gas pedals, and it has issued recalls involving millions of vehicles.
February 4, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 3:30:13 pm
Ten U.S. citizens now face criminal charges and up to 15 years in the Haitian prison system after they tried to transport 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic. The group, most of whom belong to a Baptist congregation in Idaho, have come to personify Haitian unease and concerns about loss of sovereignty following last month's devastating earthquake.
The Americans were arrested on Friday as they tried to take 33 Haitian children to what they had said was an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. A Web site for the orphanage said that children there would stay in a "loving Christian home-like environment" and be eligible for adoption.
While the church members say their good intentions were misinterpreted, family law attorney Elizabeth Durso Branch says it was poorly thought out to transport children out of the country with consent from Haitian authorities. "There was no true urgency to remove these children from Haiti," says Branch, who focuses on child-related issues as a partner at the Family Law firm of McCurley Orsinger McCurley Nelson & Downing, L.L.P. "While Port-au-Prince is devastated, there are other physically safe locations within the country to set up an orphanage or refugee camp. The group may have had good intentions, just far too little guidance."
February 4, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 2:43:44 pm
Forbes has an interesting take on how the need for companies to protect brand reputation has become increasingly important in this information age. Consider this little factoid courtesy of Thomsn Reuters and Interbrand: in the 1970s, 95 percent of a corporation's value consisted of tangible assets, compared to just 25 percent today. In other words, a business's most valuable asset is its good name, its brand and reputation. In a recent survey released jointly by the World Economic Forum and the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm, three-fifths of chief executives said they believed corporate brand and reputation represented more than 40% of their company's market capitalization.
But along with that shift in value away from assets, there are now more opportunities than ever for a company's hard-earned reputation to come under attack more than ever.
Consider the nearly 370 million users of Facebook and Twitter alone. Corporate America can no longer afford to sit on the social media sidelines, hoping their intellectual poperty is not being compromised. Increasingly, IP owners are monitoring social content for keywords attributable to their companies. If abuse is detected, the owner should take immediate action, says Jason Fulmer of Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP. "There are legal remedies to pursue, but it often is more effective to approach the specific social media site to try to settle the matter under the site's own dispute-resolution procedures," says Fulmer. "These sites all have different policies, but all operate under a common desire not to be sued because of a user's infringing content." If a company fails to act, the site could be charged with being complicit in the infringement.
February 2, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 4:52:54 pm
After nearly a decade of intense opposition, one of the country's highest-profile and most controversial wind energy projects - a wind farm just offshore from Cape Cod -- may be poised for approval to move forward. The long and difficult path faced by the project provides some teaching opportunities as renewable energy projects pick up momentum with the vocal support of the Obama administration. Attorney Scott Deatherage of the Dallas office of Thompson & Knight says that the Cape Wind project illustrates the need to mitigate any environmental concerns or perceived intrusions by offshore wind farms. To assuage neighbors' concerns, Cape Wind developers have proposed painting the massive wind turbines so that they will blend in with the horizon, among other things.
"Increasingly both the public and the government want to promote renewable energy and address concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Projects like Cape Wind and what we're seeing along the Texas Gulf Coast suggest that wind energy production and any impact on aesthetics and the environment can be balanced," Deatherage says.
Indeed, the U.S. wind power industry grew by a staggering 39 percent in 2009, according to the New York Times.
February 2, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 4:04:00 pm
Elizabeth Durso Branch was well on her way to making a name for herself in the world of Family Law by the time she arrived at McCurley Orsinger McCurley Nelson & Downing in 2004. By then, she had already put in time as a prosecutor in Bexar County, an assistant county attorney in Guadalupe County and served more than four years as an assistant attorney general in the AG's child support litigation division. At the AG's office Elizabeth penned the brief that led to the adoption of a com community caretaking exception by the 4th Court of Appeals in Ortega v. State, 974 S.W.2d 361 (Tex.App.-San Antonio 1998).
At McCurley Orsinger, Betsy has built a strong practice, often focusing on cases that include issues involving the well-being of children caught in the middle of divorce disputes. She and other McCurley Orsinger attorneys took the lead in the unprecedented pro bono effort representing hundreds of minors removed by authorities following the 2008 federal raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas. Firm founder Mike McCurley announced today that Betsy is the firm's newest partner. "Betsy has always been a staunch advocate for her clients in and out of the courtroom," McCurley says. "That tenacity has earned her the respect of her clients and peers, and helped make her an invaluable member of our firm. We are very pleased to be able to introduce her as a partner."
February 1, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 2:49:18 pm
If you needed any additional reason to worry about the state of the commercial real estate market, consider today's bipartisan statement from 79 U.S. House members to the Federal Reservey. The statement urges the Fed to take a more active role in propping up the commercial real estate market and averting an economic disaster.
According to the New York Times, the congressmen are calling for the agencies to make clear public statements encouraging lenders to continue to make credit available for performing assets, even if the value of the property has taken a hit in its value. More than $1.4 trillion in commercial mortgages will come due by 2013, and as much as 65 percent of those deals will have trouble getting refinanced because of the drop in property values, according to Deutsche Bank. By encouraging lenders to refinance the deals, the lawmakers are hoping that commercial real estate values will stabilize. But that assumes commercial real estate owners will even want to refinance their properties. In many cases, the debt payments exceed the rent roll, making it uneconomical to hold on to the property.
Commercial real estate attorney Thad Armstrong, a partner in Thompson & Knight'sHouston offices, says that while 2009 was the year of residential foreclosures, the boton is passing to commercial real estate. "As loans mature and lenders and borrowers fail to reach agreements on modifications, extensions or workouts, more large-scale, high-value retail and office developments are being faced with foreclosure, and we expect those numbers to continue to rise for the next 12 to 24 months," Armstrong says. "With the sheer number of properties that will be changing hands, there will be attractive business opportunities for investors, tenants, property managers, brokers, and title companies." Armstrong notes that lenders should engage legal counsel with particular expertise in foreclosure laws, which can vary by state. "One misstep could jeopardize the validity of an entire sale."
February 1, 2010 by Robert Tharp at 1:09:16 pm
As Toyota scrambles to fix an accelerator defect that has idled manufacutirng plants and caused sales of popular models to come to a screeching halt, a Texas law firm has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of a Corpus Christi man whose January 2010 crash has been blamed on the faulty pedal.
Attorney Robert Hilliard of the Corpus Christi, Texas-based law firm of Hilliard Muńoz Guerra LLP represents Slyvia and Albert Peña III. Mr. Peña was driving his 2008 Toyota Avalon last month when the car crashed after suddenly accelerating through a stop sign.
The lawsuit charges that Toyota used defective "Electronic Throttle Control"(ETC) systems in its Toyota and Lexus vehicles. These faulty ETC systems cause sudden acceleration. Mr. Hilliard says that Toyota has long been aware of the problem and even installed a mechanical failsafe device to prevent the unintended acceleration, but discontinued the practice in 2001.
The New York Times notes today that Toyota has known about the problem with the gas pedals for some time, but only last week did the company finally appear to come to terms with the scope of the problem - after expanding a series of recalls to cover millions of vehicles around the world, incalculable damage to its once-stellar reputation for quality and calls for Congressional hearings.
At almost every step that led to its current predicament, Toyota underestimated the severity of the sudden-acceleration problem affecting its most popular cars. It went from discounting early reports of problems to overconfidently announcing diagnoses and insufficient fixes. As recently as the fall, Toyota was still saying it was confident that loose floor mats were the sole cause of any sudden acceleration, issuing an advisory to millions of Toyota owners to remove them. The company said on Nov. 2 that “there is no evidence to support” any other conclusion, and added that its claim was backed up by the federal traffic safety agency.
But, in fact, the agency had not signed on to the explanation, and it issued a sharp rebuke. Toyota’s statement was “misleading and inaccurate,” the agency said. “This matter is not closed.” The effect on Toyota’s business is already being felt. Its sales in the United States in January are expected to drop 11 percent from a year earlier, and its market share in the United States is likely to fall to its lowest point since 2006, according to Edmunds.com, an automotive research Web site.
“Toyota has long known about the defect with their throttle control, and has done too little, too late to correct it,” says Mr. Hilliard. “Much like their cars, this problem is speeding out of control and Toyota is having a hard time slamming on the brakes.”
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