Man At Wheel Of ‘Out-of-Control’ Prius Has Troubled Financial Past

Man At Wheel Of ‘Out-of-Control’ Prius Has Troubled Financial Past

March 12th, 2010 Posted By Pat Dollard.

Runaway Prius

Fox News:

The man who became the face of the Toyota gas pedal scandal this week has a troubled financial past that is leading some to question whether he was wholly truthful in his story.

On Monday, James Sikes called 911 to report that he was behind the wheel of an out-of-control Toyota Prius going 94 mph on a freeway near San Diego. Twenty-three minutes later, a California Highway Patrol officer helped guide him to a stop, a rescue that was captured on videotape.

Since then, it’s been learned that:

— Sikes filed for bankruptcy in San Diego in 2008. According to documents, he was more than $700,000 in debt and owed roughly $19,000 on his Prius;

— In 2001, Sikes filed a police report with the Merced County Sheriff’s Department for $58,000 in stolen property, including jewelry, a digital video camera and equipment and $24,000 in cash;

— Sikes has hired a law firm, though it has indicated he has no plans to sue Toyota;

— Sikes won $55,000 on television’s “The Big Spin” in 2006, Fox40.com reports, and the real estate agent has boasted of celebrity clients such as Constance Ramos of “Extreme Home Makeover.”

While authorities say they don’t doubt Sikes’ account, several bloggers and a man who bought a home from Sikes in 2007 question whether the 61-year-old entrepreneur may have concocted the incident for publicity or for monetary gain.

A man who bought a house in the San Diego area from Sikes in 2007 told FoxNews.com he immediately questioned the circumstances surrounding Monday’s incident.

“Immediately I thought this guy has an angle here,” the man said on Friday. “But I don’t know what the angle is here.”

The man, who asked not to be identified, said the home he purchased from Sikes had undisclosed problems that eventually cost him $20,000. He tried to sue in civil court, but Sikes had filed for bankruptcy during the process.

“It got to the point where it wasn’t worth me paying legal fees to go after a guy who was broke,” he said. “I ate the 20,000 bucks.”

The man said Sikes came off as a dishonest businessman who was difficult to work with during the transaction.

“It didn’t surprise me,” he said of Sikes’ recent troubles with his Prius. “I thought this guy is trying to pull a scam here.”

Toyota executives, who have talked extensively with Sikes, have said they’re “mystified” by Sikes’ account.

“It’s tough for us to say if we’re skeptical,” Don Esmond, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales, said Thursday. “I’m mystified in how it could happen with the brake override system.”

Esmond said all Priuses are equipped with a computer system that cuts power to the wheels if the brake and gas pedals are depressed at the same time — something Sikes was doing.

Sikes’ reputation apparently precedes him in Northern California, as well.

“I’ve been warned that he used to do business here,” Jim Pernetti of AAA California Document Services told Fox40.com, “and that I should be very wary of anything with him.”

Sikes called 911 on Monday to report that his gas pedal was stuck and his blue 2008 Prius was speeding at 94 mph down a freeway near San Diego. A CHP officer helped bring the car to a stop, but not before two calls to police dispatchers that spanned 23 minutes.

Asked why he didn’t simply put his car in neutral, Sikes said: “You had to be there. I might go into reverse. I didn’t know if the care would flip. I had no idea how it would react.”

Sikes, who did not return several calls and e-mail messages, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the incident was no hoax.

“I’ve had things happen in my life, but I’m not making up this story,” he told the newspaper.

Roughly 8.5 million vehicles worldwide have been recalled by Toyota, including more than 6 million in the United States, due to acceleration and braking problems in several models. Regulators have linked at least 52 deaths to crashes allegedly caused by accelerator problems.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has sent experts to a New York City suburb where a 56-year-old woman said her 2005 Prius sped up on its own as she was leaving a driveway.

Theodore H. Frank: I am not afraid of my Toyota Prius

Theodore H. Frank: I am not afraid of my Toyota Prius

By: Theodore H. Frank
OpEd Contributor
March 11, 2010

Toyota President and Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda, left, and Yoshimi Inaba, right, president and chief executive officer, Toyota Motor North America, are sworn-in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010, prior to testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Toyota. (AP)

I’ve been driving Toyota Priuses since 2001.  As a junior defense lawyer in the mid-90s, I litigated a number of bogus sudden acceleration cases that were brought against General Motors.

So the recent kerfuffle over alleged mysterious electronic problems with the Prius and other Toyotas has certainly caught my attention beyond just throwing my floor mat in the trunk.

I knew the public hysteria had reached unprecedented proportions when my father, a Ph.D. geologist skeptical of everything from George W. Bush to global warming (and that’s just the G’s), credulously emailed me repeatedly to demand I read a press release from a plaintiff’s lawyer on how to prevent runaway vehicles. 

The short answer: hit the brake and stay on it.  Every vehicle on the road today has a braking system more powerful than its engine.  Shift into neutral.  Then turn off the power.

So James Sikes, who made a dramatic 911 call from his Prius on Interstate 8 in San Diego earlier this week, is effectively claiming he had an electrical problem that affected his throttle, his brake, and his power system, because it took him over 20 minutes to stop his car.

Somehow no one in the press has asked Sikes how it is he could stop the car once it had slowed to 50 mph, but not when it was going 90 mph.  Have Balloon Boy and the finger-in-the-chili taught us nothing?

Even if one believes all the hype, the reaction so far has been a giant overreaction.  Fifty-odd deaths over 10 years and millions of Toyotas is a drop in the bucket compared to the general risk of being on the road at all.

It’s entirely possible that more people will be killed driving to the dealer for the recall than lives will be saved from going through the safety theater demanded by the Department of Transportation.

As Carnegie Mellon University Professor Paul Fischbeck calculates, I face 19 times more risk walking home the mile back from my Toyota dealer than I would driving a car that one assumes has the electronic defect.

But one shouldn’t believe the hype.  We went through this a generation ago with the Audi 5000 and other autos accused of sudden acceleration, and, again, mysterious unknowable car components were supposedly at fault.

In a North Carolina case I worked on, the plaintiff’s expert theorized that electromagnetic transmissions from submarines might have set off the throttle via the cruise control, though, unsurprisingly, he was not able to duplicate the effect while driving around electrical towers with much greater electromagnetic interference.

Back then, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) spent millions studying the issue.  They found that sudden acceleration was several times more likely among elderly drivers than young drivers, and much more frequent among the very short or someone who had just gotten into a vehicle.

Electromagnetic rays don’t discriminate by age and height, which suggests very much that human factors were at play: in other words, pedal misapplication.  A driver would step on the wrong pedal, panic when the car did not perform as expected, continue to mistake the accelerator for the brake, and press down on the accelerator even harder.

This had disastrous consequences in a 1992 Washington Square Park incident that killed five and a 2003 Santa Monica Farmers’ Market incident that killed ten—the New York driver, Stella Maycheck, was 74 (and quite short); the California driver, George Russell Weller, 86.

We’re seeing the same pattern again today.  Initial reports of a problem, followed by dozens of new reports “coming to light” as people seek to blame their earlier accidents on sudden acceleration.

Again, mysterious car components are at issue, this time, speculation of software or electronics going haywire.  But if the problem is software, it is manifesting itself a lot like the Audi sudden acceleration did.

The Los Angeles Times recently did a story detailing all of the NHTSA reports of Toyota “sudden acceleration” fatalities, and, though the Times did not mention it, the ages of the drivers involved were striking.

In the 24 cases where driver age was reported or readily inferred, the drivers included those of the ages 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89—and I’m leaving out the son whose age wasn’t identified, but whose 94-year-old father died as a passenger. 

These “electronic defects” apparently discriminate against the elderly, just as the sudden acceleration of Audis and GM autos did before them.  (If computers are going to discriminate against anyone, they should be picking on the young, who are more likely to take up arms against the rise of the machines and future Terminators).

But Toyota is being mau-maued by Democratic regulators and legislators in the pockets of trial lawyers—who, according to the Associated Press, stand to make a billion dollars from blaming Toyota for driver error.

And that is before hundreds of past run-of-the-mill Toyota accidents that killed or injured people are re-classified in future lawsuits as an electronics failure in an attempt to win settlements against the company.

Media irresponsibility severely damaged Audi’s brand for years in the U.S.; GM’s litigation expenses from sudden acceleration and similarly bogus product liability suits contributed to its recent need for a taxpayer bailout.

Certainly, the dozens of deaths reported to NHTSA are real tragedies—as are the tens of thousands of other automobile-related deaths that occur every year.  While it’s certainly possibly the case that floor mat troubles have caused a handful of accidents, the media needs to exhibit more skepticism before it does trial lawyers’ bidding against Toyota on a speculative theory of electronic defect that is absent of evidence.

Theodore H. Frank (http://tedfrank.com) is the founder and president of the Center for Class Action Fairness. He does not speak for General Motors.