A Republican lawmaker accused an auto-safety advocate today of having inappropriate ties to plaintiffs' lawyers and allowing the lawyers to influence his research about acceleration problems with several Toyota models.
The advocate, Sean Kane, defended his research as credible. He is head of Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a for-profit Massachusetts company that investigates reports of auto defects. He is a former researcher for consumer advocate Ralph Nader at the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, according to the company’s Web site.
In a 180-page report this month on sudden, unexplained acceleration in Toyota vehicles, Kane’s company thanked five lawyers for having “sponsored” the research. But, the company also said, the report “was not funded by attorneys, consumers, advocacy groups, or experts interested in this subject matter.”
The Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 13 that, in fact, at least some of those five lawyers have worked on litigation with Kane, including cases against Toyota. One of the five, Donald Slavik, a partner in Milwaukee’s Habush Habush & Rottier, told The National Law Journal on Monday that he is working on at least five cases related to Toyota’s recent recalls.
Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) seized on the lawyers’ payments to Kane, who testified today before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Buyer said he was “uncomfortable” with Kane’s testimony because, he said, advocacy before Congress has to be pure.
“How much have you been paid by these firms?” Buyer asked.
“Frankly, not a lot of calculation on that,” Kane replied, adding that “it is far less than it cost me to be here today.” Kane is based in Massachusetts.
Buyer pressed for an answer. “You don’t know how much lawyers are paying you with regard to your report?” Kane again said he did not know.
“You are being sponsored by five law firms who are suing Toyota,” Buyer said. “Now I’m getting a better picture…. When you manipulate and exaggerate the problem, that doesn’t work very well.”
Buyer also questioned the testimony of David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Gilbert testified that, according to his own research, an electronic defect could be causing the sudden acceleration in Toyota models. He said that Kane’s company had paid him $1,800 and would, in the future, be paying him $150 an hour as an engineering expert.
Gilbert and Kane said the money they have received did not influence their testimony.