By Sarah Rashid on July 14, 2017
A new “eco-friendly” biodegradable material used to insulate wiring in newer cars could make for trouble — and lawsuits — down the road for car manufacturers. This insulation is made from soybeans, making it more environmentally friendly and cheaper for car manufacturers. But it has a downside: it serves as an attractive, tasty treat for rats, mice, squirrel, rabbits, and other rodents.
The rodents typically attack wiring insulation they find underneath the hood of the car, leading to frequent and costly consumer repairs. Some damage has been so extensive that the entire wiring harness needs to be replaced, leading to repair bills in the thousands of dollars. Consumers are angry, because no matter how new the car, chewed wiring is generally not covered by the car’s “new vehicle warranty.”
Several class action suits involving soy based insulation have been filed against Toyota and Honda. In Janice Toler vs. Toyota Motor Corporation & Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., the plaintiffs alleged breach of warranty, breach of contract, and fraudulent concealment by Toyota, and sought class certification. In Daniel Dobbs, et al. v. American Honda Motor Co. Inc., filed by three Honda owners seeking class certification on behalf of all Honda owners and Honda lessees, the plaintiffs alleged that Honda was aware that the insulation was defective because it had started selling rodent repellant electrical tape shortly after introducing the soy-based wiring. Plaintiffs asserted that the factory warranty of the car should cover the cost of the repair. Both of these suits were voluntarily dismissed before responsive pleadings or motions were filed by the defendants.
In August, 2016 another proposed class action suit was filed in the United States District Court in Santa Ana, California, where it is currently pending.  In their 222 page, 79 Count Third Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs allege causes of action against Toyota based on breach of express and implied warranty, the Federal Magnuson – Moss Warranty Act, violations of various state consumer protection laws, and common law claims for fraudulent concealment and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs seek to certify a national class and various state sub-classes of owners and lessees of several 2007 – 2017 Toyota vehicle model vehicles identified as the “Class Vehicles.”
Toyota filed a motion to dismiss, and the parties have filed briefs in support of and in opposition to the motion. In their Statement of Facts, the plaintiffs colorfully aver that the “bio-based materials created a bed and breakfast for rodents and other animals.” Toyota contends that the plaintiffs have not pleaded a plausible theory of liability; that there is no basis for a nationwide class action; that plaintiffs allege design defects, which are not covered by its warranties; and that their fraud claims are not based on any false representations. The Court has set a hearing on Toyota’s motion for August 7, 2017.
Similar claims have been made involving wiring of Volvo cars. Meanwhile, owners are resorting to a variety of measures to ward off the hungry rodents, ranging from putting mothballs, dryer sheets, or liquid peppermint in their engine compartments to using fox and coyote urine to discourage foraging varmints. And as mentioned above, Honda dealers are offering owners electrical tape treated with capsaicin, a substance found in hot peppers, for purchase and installation at customer expense.
These cases illustrate the law school maxims that self-help methods are often the most effective, but there is no wrong without a remedy. More to follow.
 Jennifer Grammer, et al. v. Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc., Case No. 8:16-cv-01525-AG-JCG, In the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Santa Ana Division