BETSY BENJAMINSON: “I plan to vigorously represent my interests in regard to the subpoena.” Toyota wants her to come to the United States for a deposition. (Yael Argov Hacmun)
Toyota Motor Corp. has subpoenaed a former translator-turned-whistleblower, hoping to discover how she secured access to hundreds of confidential documents that she posted on an online blog, including information relating to computer code it considers its “crown jewels.”
The translator, a former subcontractor named Betsy Benjaminson, is a self-proclaimed whistleblower, providing internal Toyota documents to news organizations including CNN and Corporate Counsel, an affiliate of The National Law Journal, involving alleged defects that caused Toyota’s cars and trucks to suddenly accelerate out of control.
Benjaminson, who was forced to flee her home in Sderot, Israel, to avoid Hamas rocket attacks this month, confirmed she had received the subpoena via email on June 28. “I’m retaining counsel and will defend myself from the subpoena,” she said.
Toyota, which recalled more than 10 million models for the faulty accelerator pedals and floor mats it blamed for the problems, has paid billions of dollars to resolve hundreds of consumer lawsuits, regulatory fines and a criminal investigation. It also is attempting to settle lawsuits brought on behalf of people injured or killed due to sudden acceleration, many of whom blame the accidents on glitches in Toyota’s electronic throttle control systems. Toyota has rejected those assertions.
Since March, Benjaminson, who is writing a book about Toyota’s recalls, has posted on her blog internal documents — many of them stored in a Dropbox folder — that Toyota asserts are protected under the attorney-client privilege and court orders. Toyota appears particularly concerned about a PowerPoint presentation prepared by a plaintiffs’ software expert who testified in a critical bellwether trial last year that it claims contains “highly confidential source code information.” Toyota considers its source code to be a trade secret — it has referred to them as its “crown jewels’ — but plaintiffs’ attorneys have pushed for access to prove the software used in its vehicles has bugs. In a May 19 tentative ruling, U.S. District Judge James Selna allowed Toyota to subpoena Benjaminson for a deposition in the United States. “We appreciate that the court has fully upheld Toyota’s rights and privileges and is strongly enforcing the protective orders in this litigation,” Carly Schaffner, a Toyota spokeswoman, said via email .
Benjaminson isn’t backing down. She wrote in her own email message: “I plan to vigorously represent my interests with regard to the subpoena. For that reason, we are setting up a legal defense fund online, which we hope to launch this week. We will respond to the ­subpoena in writing.” She declined to comment about Toyota’s allegations.
In letters filed with the court, Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. managing counsel Christine Lofgren told Benjaminson that posting the internal documents violated a confidentiality agreement she signed when she worked as a subcontractor for Toyota.
While acknowledging that Benjaminson could have accessed some of the documents when she worked as a subcontractor, Toyota contends that unnamed third parties have provided her with additional materials, including the PowerPoint presentation.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Donald Slavik of Robinson Calcagnie Robinson Shapiro Davis in Newport Beach, Calif., declined to comment about the Benjaminson subpoena. He acknow­ledged in court papers that Benjaminson at one point worked for a translation-­services firm hired by the plaintiffs but disputed that the PowerPoint presentation contained information about Toyota’s source code.
The expert witness, Michael Barr, created the PowerPoint presentation for a trial in which an Oklahoma City jury on Oct. 24 awarded $3 million to an injured driver and the family of a deceased passenger in a 2005 Camry. According to a May 6 declaration, Barr said the courtroom was cleared during his testimony after Toyota objected to certain words in a version of his PowerPoint presentation. Toyota settled the case — the first in which jurors heard about the alleged electronic defect — for an undisclosed sum before the jury could return the next day to assess punitive damages.
Jere Beasley, founding shareholder of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, the Montgomery plaintiffs firm that obtained the Oklahoma verdict, said via email that Toyota was trying to intimidate Barr and Benjaminson.
Neither Barr, of the Barr Group in Gathersburg, Md., nor his attorney, Timothy Bucknell of Washington’s Tayman Lane Chaverri, responded to requests for comment. In his declaration, Barr maintained that he hadn’t provided his PowerPoint presentation to Benjaminson, although he has distributed versions of it to others.
In his tentative ruling, Selna suggested that Toyota be allowed to subpoena Barr.
“Although the deposition of Ms. Benjaminson is likely to yield probative evidence, other discovery, including the deposition of Michael Barr, is also appropriate at this time,” he wrote.
Contact Amanda Bronstad at email@example.com.