The Cult of Irresponsibility

The media driven hysteria over “unintended acceleration” is part of a larger issue: the relentless attempts by the American Left to find an excuse for just about every human act of negligence, recklessness, or downright stupidity. Even violent criminals are presented as “victims” who are only “products of an unjust society.”

But in order to exonerate those who would normally (and rightly) be called idiots, these devotees of “social engineering” must find a suitable scapegoat, and “corporations” are tailor made for the role. After all, liberals have been demonizing the private sector since the 1960’s, blaming free market capitalism for every conceivable cultural malady, real or imagined. So when some dimwitted driver stomps on the wrong pedal, or doesn’t have the presence of mind to simply turn off the ignition, voila! – it’s the car’s (and the car maker’s) fault!

Blaming “the car” for what invariably turns out to be driver error is not new – the most egregious example of engineering reality taking a back seat to media myth and trial lawyer corruption was the Audi case. For those unfamiliar with it, Audi suffered the same false charges that Toyota has been experiencing – that its cars just magically “ran away from the driver.”

But few people know what precipitated the uproar. It all started when a woman walked out to her garage, got into her Audi 5000, put the car in what she thought was Reverse, and stepped on the gas. In fact, she had actually put the car in Drive, so the car lurched forward, slamming into her then 6-year old son who was waving goodbye, pinning him to the back of the garage – he died later.

To be fair, it is perfectly understandable that this poor woman would have had more than a little difficulty dealing with the fact that she killed her own child. What could possibly be more traumatic? But rather than facing up to the harsh reality, she sought to find someone (or some thing) to blame. Not surprisingly, she had no trouble finding drooling trial attorneys only too eager to take her case.

And once the case received national attention, lo and behold, as if by magic, out of the woodwork came hundreds of people, all claiming that, by gosh, the same thing happened to them! The fact that most of those jumping on the “sudden acceleration” bandwagon were also defendants in various criminal prosecutions, from negligence to vehicular homicide, was surely just coincidental.

In the end, after exhaustive investigation by transportation officials and independent automotive engineers in both America and Europe, not to mention costing Audi more than 100 million dollars, the truth came out – not a single case could be found that would duplicate the claims made by the plaintiffs. In every case, driver error had been the culprit. Yet even today, you will hear people reference the “Audi problem” as if it were fact. Facts may be stubborn things, but in today’s media-driven world, falsehoods are even more persistent.

Here in Minnesota, we have a similar situation involving a Toyota. In 2006, Koa Fong Lee, a recent Hmong immigrant from a Thai refugee camp with only about a year of driving experience, was exiting a freeway ramp in St. Paul when his 1996 Camry plowed into the back of an Oldsmobile stopped at a red light, killing three people and severely injuring two more. Lee’s car was calculated to be traveling at somewhere between 70 and 90 mph. He insisted at trial that he was trying to brake before the collision, but was convicted of charges including criminal vehicular homicide in the 2006 crash.

Then along came the current Toyota controversy, and, you guessed it, his attorney saw a way to piggy-back onto the media feeding frenzy. Never mind that the Toyota that Lee was driving was built 14 years ago, and has nothing in common with the Toyota models that are being maligned today (Lee’s car had a traditional mechanical throttle mechanism – not an electronic throttle that is at the heart of the current controversy). Based solely on the fact that Lee’s attorneys did not have testimony from Toyota owners available during his original trial, the judge in the case declared that Lee deserved a new trial. But since the prosecutor in the case did not see fit to try Lee again, he walked.

Now, I will be the first to agree that Lee’s original charge (criminal vehicular homicide) was perhaps a bit too harsh – Lee was not drunk, on drugs, or engaging in any behavior that might have indicated what prosecutors call “reckless disregard for life” – he simply got involved in a horrible vehicle crash. But should he still have been held accountable? Absolutely. And a retrial would have been the way to do that.

What concerns me about the legal aspects of this case are two things. First, the judge completely ignored the fact that Lee’s attorneys were unable to prove ANY malfunctions in Lee’s vehicle – instead the Judge apparently accepted what was nothing more than anecdotal testimony from a parade of Toyota owners who claimed to have experienced the same difficulties.

Second, the prosecutor abdicated her responsibility to follow though on the law, and instead basically gave Lee a “get out of jail free” card, which merely sets up a whole new set of civil law suits, by both the family of those killed, and Lee himself, against Toyota, in spite of the fact that there is not one shred of credible EVIDENCE that ANY Toyota vehicle has a problem, much less that Lee’s 14 year old model did.

But what really bothers me is the reaction from the public – almost universally, the knee-jerk reaction about the court decision is to immediately let Lee completely off the hook, and instead, blame Toyota. Naturally, when you ask people how much they actually know about the case, you find that they are virtually clueless – they “just know that Toyota is at fault” and of course, “Toyota should pay.”

Perhaps even more disturbing were the people who thought Lee shouldn’t have any responsibility, because he didn’t intend to hurt anyone. But we are all responsible for the results of our actions – what we actually do – regardless of what we intended to do. And when fact, science, and reason no longer count in our legal system, and are instead replaced with hysteria, misinformation, and anti-business bigotry, we are all at greater peril…

John Caile