Appeals Court Dismisses Suit Against Toyota, Holding Unfair or Deceptive Act Claims Must be Material

The Court of Appeals of the State of Washington affirmed the dismissal of state Consumer Protection Act (CPA) claims against Toyota in a published opinion, holding that an “unfair or deceptive act or practice” must be material in order for a plaintiff to meet the necessary burden of proof in a private cause of action under the CPA.

In the fall of 2013, shortly after shipping new 2014 model-year Tacoma trucks to dealers, Toyota discovered that some vehicles with limited edition packages may have had window stickers erroneously indicating that an outside temperature gauge was included in the truck’s rearview mirror. Toyota immediately corrected the stickers and a similar error on its website; it then identified 147 people who might have purchased such a vehicle and sent each of them letters apologizing for the error, offering each $100. 

The plaintiff, Duane Young, contacted Toyota expressing his dissatisfaction with the offer. He refused the $100 and ultimately filed a putative class action against Toyota claiming common law fraud, negligent misrepresentation and violation of the CPA.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that Young failed to demonstrate an "unfair or deceptive act or practice," which is the first element of the CPA. The court found that implicit in the first element is materiality: that the actor misrepresented something of material importance. The court noted the trial court’s “unchallenged finding” that the value of the temperature gauge was $10—as compared to the $7,525 cost of the full limited edition package—and because the gauge was not included in the package, no buyer had been charged for it. “This unchallenged evidence establishes that Toyota’s error was financially immaterial,” the court said. The plaintiff “failed to demonstrate that Toyota’s mistake was a matter of material importance and therefore deceptive, or that it had the capacity to deceive a substantial portion of the public.” The court also found that Young failed to prove any injury caused by Toyota. 

“Immaterial errors are not frauds, impositions, or abuses,” the court said. Moreover, it said the conduct the trial court found credible was “much more consistent with someone who learned that Toyota had made a mistake and wanted to take advantage of it, than someone who relied upon that item in good faith.”

Shook Partners Mark Campbell, Rachel Straus and Michael Mallow represented Toyota Motor Sales at trial. The case is Young v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., No. 358532-9-III (Wash. App. Ct., May 23, 2019).