Last week was a time for celebration for the hundreds of complainants against the Mitsubishi Montero SUV. The Department of Trade and Industry finally, after at least five years of receiving complaints and doing nothing concrete, ordered Mitsubishi to cease and desist from selling the 2010 to 2015 models of Montero automatic transmission SUVs. More significantly, the Trade and Industry Department also ordered the recall of these models and to pay the owners their money value taking into consideration depreciation. The DTI also imposed a fine on Mitsubishi for violations of the Consumer Act.
It will be recalled that complaints about the Montero sports vehicle going wild on a sudden unintended acceleration hit the news on large scale in 2015 prompting even Congress to do a probe. Before then, I was the proverbial lone voice in the wilderness writing tirelessly about incidents of the Montero suddenly accelerating uncontrollably, hitting other vehicles and structures. Deaths and physical injuries arising from such accidents have been reported but Mitsubishi’s consistent defense was “driver error.” Back in 2011 to 2014, what Mitsubishi would do was to offer to buy back the damaged vehicles at a low price then make the owner-victims sign a confidentiality agreement that they were not supposed to talk to anyone about the settlement. Back then, too, because the victims mostly felt powerless and alone, they would individually accept a settlement no matter how unacceptable it was. A blog by victims of the Montero’s unintended acceleration had to be taken down too as part of the terms of settlement with Mitsubishi. For the complainants, the Trade and Industry department did not do enough to help consumers, fomenting frustration and a sense of helplessness. This led victims to resort to the social media, creating a face book account, where victims shared their respective experiences with the Montero.
Things came to a head when more and more complainants came forward, some of whom were members of prominent and political families, forcing the Trade and Industry department to take a more proactive action. It then created a Consumer Protection Investigating Panel which conducted public hearings. Twenty-four individuals who were victims of the Montero’s sudden unintended acceleration submitted sworn affidavit. This prompted the DTI-Fair Trade and Enforcement Bureau—Enforcement Division to officially file a complaint with the DTI against Mitsubishi to enforce consumer rights.
The DTI’s Fair Trade Adjudication Division promulgated a carefully crafted decision dated May 10, 2017, released only last week. The decision, to my mind, is an excellent material for study by law students for being a perfect example of how an agency of government that is tasked to promote trade yet also mandated to protect consumer rights can do a balancing act. Thus, the decision stated that while there was insufficient evidence to hold Mitsubishi liable for SUA-related defects, the unrefuted existence of numerous unfortunate incidents all involving one type of vehicle—the Montero automatic transmission sports—raises a high reasonable probability that there must be a defect in the vehicle’s design or mechanical aspect. While Mitsubishi asserted that the report done by an expert it hired, HORIBA MIRA, to study the vehicle said that the vehicle did not have defects that could cause sudden unintended acceleration, the DTI said the findings of Mitsubishi’s expert group were hearsay and self-serving as HORIBA was not an independent body chosen by both the parties. Just the same, DTI used this very same study which stated that there was a defect in the positioning of the acceleration and brake pedals of the vehicle which might have caused the Montero accidents. With this, the DTI anchored its decision on Articles 10 and 164 of the Consumer Act which prohibit the sale of injurious, dangerous and unsafe products as well as Article 97 which makes a trader liable for selling products with defects.
The DTI defined its balancing duties when it said in the decision, “In the event a body tasked by law with the role of both enhancing trade and empowering consumers has chosen to uphold consumerism, it does not intend to impress upon the masses that consumerism finds superiority over the promotion of trade, but merely breathes life into its written obligation under the law to protect its citizens because they are the people of the sovereign state which the Department of Trade and Industry is tasked to serve.”
The greatest lesson drawn from the Montero saga is that it is up to us, the sovereign people, to exercise vigilance over our rights as consumers. Had the victims remained quiet and continued to individually accept the unacceptable settlements being then offered by Mitsubishi, with undertakings of confidentiality to boot, the Trade department would not have had the political will to sanction a giant trade entity, in an ultimate manner, to protect consumers. And oh, today is Independence Day. Let this be the day we, consumers, claim independence from the shackles of oppressive business practices.