13 Investigates: Lawsuit says Toyota vehicles attract rodents, causing costly repairs


INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - A new class action lawsuit claims millions of Toyota cars, trucks and SUVs are defective because they contain materials that are very attractive to rodents, resulting in costly repairs for their owners.

The lawsuit has been filed in California, but the lead plaintiff is a Hoosier who has been battling rodent damage under his 2012 Toyota Tundra for several years.

“I had no knowledge when I bought this vehicle what was done,” Albert Heber told WTHR outside his home in Delphi, Ind. “I feel the manufacturer bears responsibility for changing materials…and it has been a big disappointment and very expensive.”

Heber’s problems started in fall 2013, when his new pickup truck had less than 4,000 miles. That’s when the vehicle’s “check engine” warning light first appeared. It has remained lit ever since.

“It’s on all the time. It never goes off,” Heber said.

Al Heber says rodents keep chewing through wires under his truck. He blames Toyota for using insulation that attracts animals.

A mechanic at a Toyota dealership in Lafayette discovered what had triggered the warning light: rodent damage under the vehicle.

“It was a vapor hose in the back that was chewed almost completely in half. I was taken totally by surprise,” Heber told 13 Investigates, climbing under his Tundra to show the damage.

Catching the culprit

Over the next three years, the damage – and the emergence of new warning lights – would only get worse.

The anti-lock brake warning light was next. Then the low fuel light started glowing – even when the gas tank was full.

A 4-wheel drive warning light starting blinking non-stop after that.

And Heber noticed his cruise control was no longer working.

During a routine drive to the grocery store, the vehicle’s dashboard is now lit up like a Christmas tree.

Five warning symbols light up the dashboard. The truck owner says they’re caused by rodent damage.

Another inspection at the dealership showed more signs of rodent damage, including damaged wiring harnesses and a front brake sensor wire that had been chewed to pieces. Heber thinks he might have caught the culprit red-handed.

“I was right here looking out my [porch] window. I saw a squirrel on its hind legs between the two rear tires, crawling up into the bottom of my truck,” he said.

Who’s responsible?

Repairing all the damage will cost about $2,200, according to estimates provided to Heber. Even though the Tundra still has fewer than 14,000 miles, Toyota will not cover the cost of repairs.

Al Heber says it will cost him about $2200 to repair all the rodent damage to his Toyota.

“The dealer declined warranty coverage and said it was my problem,” explained Heber, shaking his head. “I think they should cover it.”

At first, the loyal Toyota customer figured his was simply unlucky. Living in a home that is nearly surrounded by corn fields in rural Indiana, Heber understands squirrels and mice come with the neighborhood.

But then he discovered he isn't alone.

Online research revealed other Toyota owners across the country have been complaining their vehicles have been damaged by rodents, too. Heber also found attorney Brian Kabateck, who says the automaker is as much to blame as the rodents.

“This is a situation where they created the problem. They actually put it there and created it,” said Kabateck, who now represents Heber -- and potentially millions of other Toyota owners nationwide.

“Ritz Carlton for rats”

In August, Kabateck filed a lawsuit against Toyota in United States District Court in California. The suit, which requests class-action status on behalf of millions of Toyota owners nationwide, claims the automaker recently switched the materials used to protect wiring inside the electrical systems of its vehicles. Instead of using a plastic or glass-based insulation derived from petroleum, the lawsuit claims several automakers, including Toyota, now use soy-based insulation that is promoted as more environmentally-friendly. While that soy-based product may be better for the environment, Kabateck says it is also better – and more delicious – for rodents, who are attracted to it as a food source.

“It would literally be like putting honey in your car or peanut butter in your car and then acting surprised that insects and ants and bees are being attracted to it,” the attorney said. “You're effectively putting something there that the rats want, in an environment that the rats want. It's almost like you're creating a Ritz Carlton for the rats.”

Al Heber says he’s spent three years dealing with rodent damage under his Toyota Tundra.

But is the automaker really to blame? After all, reports of rodent damage under the hoods of cars date back decades – long before manufacturers reportedly transitioned to new materials. Kabateck believes the recent complaints from car owners suggest the problem is not merely routine.

“[Rodent damage] is going to happen and, more often than not, that’s not the manufacturer’s fault. It’s not their problem. It’s just a known issue that could happen to a car, just like a tree falling on a car or a car being parked someplace and a flood comes along and carries it away,” he said. “But because this problem is known to exist – it’s known people will have rodents chew away at their wires -- you don’t make the wires out of something that’s edible, that then becomes, frankly, a trap for these rats.”

The attorney admits he is not sure exactly how widespread the problem is, but he filed the case as a class-action complaint after seeing “a lot” of complaints.

“This is a real issue,” he said.

Not just Toyotas

Many mechanics agree.

“We've seen ground squirrels. We see mice. We see rats. We see a lot more of that than we used to 40 years ago,” said Mark Buche, owner of B&M Auto Electrical Specialists in Lafayette, Ind. “Everybody tells me they're using soy products in the wiring insulation. It must be very attractive to them… They don't just eat the insulation, they chew right into the wiring.”

Mechanic Mark Buche says he sees one or two vehicles a week with rodent damage like these chewed wires for an airflow sensor.

Buche told WTHR he now sees one or two vehicles each week with wiring destroyed by rodents. On the day 13 Investigates visited his repair shop, Buche was working on a 2012 Toyota 4Runner damaged by a raccoon. That damage (chewed wires leading from the oil pressure sensor and the anti-lock brake harness) rendered the vehicle undriveable. It was towed to the shop, where repair costs were expected to cost about $500.

“I’ve seen vehicles with thousands of dollars in damage,” said Buche, who is currently working on three Toyotas damaged by rodents. He sees lots of other vehicles, too.

“I see it with everything. There's no make or model that's exempt,” the mechanic said.

Earlier this year, Honda was sued for the same problem. The company now sellsrodent-deterring tape – an electrical tape treated with the super-spicy active component in chili peppers – that you can use to wrap around the wires of your car. Critics point to the tape as proof that major automakers know their soy-based wiring insulation is prone to rodent damage and problematic for consumers.

“It really doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is a potential problem,” Kabateck said. “[Toyota] doesn’t disclose anywhere that the wiring is soy-based. They also don’t disclose they had prior complaints from customers.”

Chasing away the rodents

While Heber has not used rodent tape, he has tried lots of other strategies to keep rodents away from his truck.

“Cayenne pepper, we tried sprinkling that on the vehicle. I’ve used moth balls. Live traps. Finally, right now, we are using cats that are hopefully deterring the squirrels,” he said.

Heber says he agreed to serve as lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit against Toyota to hold the automaker accountable, and he hopes the lawsuit will prompt changes that prevent hassles -- and repair bills -- for other drivers.

Attorney Brian Kabateck says Toyota basically created “a Ritz Carlton for the rats” by using a soy-based wire insulation.

The 26-page lawsuit alleges Toyota has breached its warranty and has violated both federal and Indiana state law by selling a defective product and by not agreeing to repair defective wiring under its new vehicle warranty. It seeks class-action status for millions of people who own 2012-2016 model year Toyotas, and it claims Toyota should pay for all damage caused by rodents that were attracted to the soy-based wiring insulation inside its vehicles.

“I have no problem with making vehicles more environmentally-friendly, but it’s not more environmental when I’m driving back and forth to get things repaired,” Heber said. “I just want them to accept responsibility. It is not an isolated problem and it’s very damaging.”

WTHR contacted Toyota to discuss the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the automaker sent a reply that says “We respectfully decline comment.”