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Toyota hit with $190 mn lawsuit

A Toyota employee has filed a $190 million lawsuit charging that the auto maker's top US executive sexually harassed her.

india Updated: May 03, 2006 11:43 IST

A Toyota Motor Corp employee has filed a $190 million lawsuit charging that the auto maker's top US executive sexually harassed her and other executives failed to act on her complaints.

In the lawsuit filed in New York state court, Sayaka Kobayashi, 42, said Toyota North America Chief Executive Hideaki Otaka, 65, made repeated sexual advances toward her in 2005 when she was working as his assistant in New York.

"Toyota has a 'zero tolerance' policy towards sexual harassment at all levels within the company and takes any allegations of this nature very seriously," Toyota said in a statement, declining any further comment.

Kobayashi, an employee in the company's corporate planning unit who was hired in the United States in 1997, was asked to become Otaka's assistant in March 2005, according to the lawsuit.

"Rather than the step forward for her career that she had hoped, the position has turned into a personal nightmare for Ms Kobayashi," the lawsuit said.

Over the next few months, Otaka repeatedly asked Kobayashi to accompany him to lunches, walks in Central Park and on business trips, where he tried to engage in sexual conduct with her, according to the suit.

The lawsuit says Toyota should have known Otaka had a "reputation of abusing positions of authority within Toyota Japan by repeatedly engaging in or attempting to engage in extra-marital sexual relationships".

Kobayashi's suit names Toyota and Otaka as defendants and seeks $40 million for injury to her career, emotional distress and negligent hiring, plus $150 million in punitive damages.

The lawsuit said Toyota's employee handbook, to which Otaka wrote the introduction, says any employee found guilty of sexual harassment faces disciplinary action, including possible termination.

Otaka is scheduled to become an auditor at Toyota affiliate Daihatsu Motor Co in Japan starting in June.

According to her lawsuit, Kobayashi e-mailed a complaint to Toyota's second highest-ranking U.S. executive in December 2005, detailing her claims of harassment and her concern that she might be denied a promotion if she angered Otaka.

The lawsuit said the executive, Dennis Cuneo, told Kobayashi he would make up a story suggesting that Kobayashi's boyfriend was complaining about Otaka's behavior "in order to avoid upsetting Otaka".

Cuneo then sent Kobayashi an e-mail saying it would be necessary for her to confront Otaka alone to discuss her concerns, the lawsuit said.

During that meeting, Otaka told Kobayashi that she "lacked quality" and had not been sufficiently grateful for his attempts to help her in her career, the lawsuit said.

Later in the same month, Toyota changed reporting lines at its New York office so that the company's general counsel, Alan Cohen, became Kobayashi's new supervisor, the lawsuit said.

In early January, the lawsuit said, Cohen presented Kobayashi with several "options", including taking an unspecified sum of money to leave the company.

"At no point did Mr Cohen or any other employee of Toyota Motor North America report that an actual investigation of (Kobayashi's) complaint occurred or the findings of any such investigation," the lawsuit states.

Kobayashi's attorney said the auto maker and Otaka were served with the complaint on Tuesday. Kobayashi is on medical leave from Toyota.

Toyota has faced scrutiny over its treatment of women in the workplace in the past.

In 2000, a logistics unit of Toyota and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Agency agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging that hiring practices at a New Jersey facility discriminated against women and blacks.

First Published: May 03, 2006 11:43 IST