This story has been revised to reflect revisions to the legal strategy of the Uno family lawyers.
You win some, you lose some. Well, not quite. But even after winning approval late last week for a $1.63 billion deal to settle one key class action stemming from its unintended acceleration fiasco, Toyota Motor Corp. is now in court facing a separate lawsuit that could prove a serious embarrassment to the Japanese maker – and set the tone for other legal action to follow.
Between late 2009 and early 2010 Toyota was forced to recall more than 10 million vehicles worldwide due to a variety of issues that could potentially cause them to skitter out of control, including sticky accelerator pedals and loose floor mats that could jam a throttle wide open. Though Toyota was ultimately cleared of claims its products also suffered mysterious electronic gremlins by several federal investigations, the maker faced a rash of litigation connected with the so-called unintended acceleration problem.
That includes the case of Noriko Uno, a 66-year-old bookkeeper at her family’s Los Angeles sushi bar who was killed when her 2006 Camry unexpectedly launched to speeds of up to 100 mph before slamming into a telephone pole and tree. Jury selection began in that case today and the showdown in Los Angeles County Superior Court is expected to take as much as two months.
Toyota has agreed to settle a number of legal actions related to the unintended acceleration fiasco – which led to a series of record fines levied by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and a harsh grilling by a Congressional subcommittee.
The maker last week received approval for a settlement estimated to cost Toyota $1.63 billion – though the maker has said it will take a one-time $1.1 billion write-off. The settlement covers owners who claimed that the various recalls and other actions related to unintended acceleration resulted in lower resale values.
After giving tentative approval to the settlement last December, U.S. District Judge James Selna said during a Friday that, “I reaffirm my conclusion that this settlement is fair, adequate and reasonable.”
While the lost value suit may be out of the way, Toyota is facing at least 80 cases involving injuries or death in vehicles that allegedly raced out of control. That includes the 2009 accident that took the life of bookkeeper Nobu whose family said she would routinely take local roads, rather than the freeway, because she was afraid of driving fast.
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In a number of instances involving personal injury, Toyota has moved to settle, especially in cases where product defects seemed obvious, such as one where a California Highway Patrol Officer and several family members were killed in the fiery crash of a runaway Lexus. But in others, it has dug in its corporate heels. It insists there was no defect involving Uno’s Camry.
“We are confident the evidence will show that a brake override system would not have prevented this accident and that there was no defect in Mrs. Uno’s vehicle,” Toyota said in a statement issued ahead of the trial.
Attorney Garo Mardirossian, who is representing Uno’s husband and son, counters that, “Toyota decided to make safety an option instead of a standard on their vehicles,” adding, “They decided to save a few bucks, and by doing so, it cost lives.”
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According to a report by the Associated Press, there are more than 80 similar cases working their way through state courts around the country while others have been consolidated into a single lawsuit expected to be heard by a federal judge in Orange County, California.
The Uno case, however, is being hailed as a bellwether and was chosen by the court to help predict how similar cases may go in the months ahead.
The family’s attorney will argue that the crash occurred due to the fact that Toyota failed to equip its vehicles with a “state-of-the-art” override system that might have helped her stop the runaway Camry even if she inadvertently was pressing on both the gas and brake pedals simultaneously. That has proven to be the cause, according to investigators, in a number of Toyota crashes.
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Meanwhile, separate studies conducted for the NHTSA by both NASA and the National Academies of Science ultimately ruled that the maker’s vehicles did not suffer from identifiable electronic defects – though the NASA study left open a line of argument for plaintiffs’ attorneys by noting that such glitches often vanish without a trace.
Observers say Toyota is walking a risky line allowing the debate to drag on in court, especially if victims or their families can grab headlines with sad tales and harrowing visual images. On the other hand, Toyota hopes to head off a situation where it could be blamed for any crash no matter how apparent the driver was at fault.
The maker has had some luck in court, including one case in which it was found not responsible for a 2005 crash by a federal jury in New York.
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