Toyota Execs Need to Learn Defensive Writing

Posted by:

It is obvious that the Toyota executive who wrote the now-infamous memo that declared a company decision to issue a limited recall a “win” that saved the company $100 million shows that history repeats itself and that lessons are hard to learn. Who remembers the Ford Pinto debacle of the 1970s, when a Ford internal document showed that the company thought that it would be “cheaper” to pay liability for burn deaths and injuries rather than modify the fuel tank to prevent the fires that had been started from a faulty gas tank design? Did Toyota learn nothing? You don’t measure public safety in terms of dollars, or at least you don’t do it in writing in a document that might be, at some point, released to the public. Given what get leaked and what has to be turned over in investigations or in litigation, that means that there is the potential for almost everything being released and made public at some point. What that means is that companies should always be very careful of what they put in writing, and how it is phrased.

Companies need to practice defensive writing. Employees, including managers, supervisors, executives and everyone else who puts pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard as the case may be nowadays, should be trained about what to say, and how to say it. Certain guidelines, suggested by product liability expert Ken Ross,  should always be followed:

  • Assume that what you write will exist forever.
  • Assume that what you write will be read on national television.
  • Do not discuss liability issues unless directed to do so by your company’s counsel.
  • Do not make unsupported statements, conclusions or opinions.
  • Do not try to be funny or humorous.
  • Be careful when discussing product liability issues in financial terms.
  • Avoid using words or expressions (including legal terminology) that are ambiguous or could be misinterpreted (perhaps intentionally) by the plaintiff and his/her attorney.

Our January 2010 newsletter talks about the importance of proper documentation.


Add a Comment