Toyota’s First Acceleration-Linked Fatality Case Goes to Trial

By Edvard Pettersson | August 7, 2013

Toyota Motor Corp. goes before a jury for the first time in a lawsuit over a claim that unexpected acceleration of one of its cars caused a death.

Opening statements are scheduled to start as early as today in California state court in Los Angeles, where about 85 personal injury and wrongful death acceleration cases have been consolidated.

The suit being tried, filed by the husband and son of a woman who died in a crash, is a bellwether whose outcome may point the way to out-of-court resolution of others.

Yasuharu Uno, the widower, and his son Jeffrey say Toyota is liable because it didn’t install a brake override system in the 2006 Camry that Noriko Uno, 66, was driving when it sped through oncoming traffic until it hit a tree. Such a system makes a vehicle’s engine idle when the gas and brake pedals are pushed simultaneously.

Noriko Uno’s fifth-generation Camry had the most reported unintended acceleration claims, Garo Mardirossian, the family’s lawyer, said in a court filing. Such claims rose 400 percent from the previous generation, he said June 24 in court papers.

“Toyota knew this,” Mardirossian wrote. “Toyota did nothing to remedy this. Rather, it recalled and added brake override to the 2007 Toyota Camry, but left Mrs. Uno’s Toyota Camry on the roadways unsafe and without brake override.”

The Toyota City, Japan-based carmaker settled economic-loss allegations brought by U.S. drivers after the recall of more than 10 million vehicles worldwide in 2009 and 2010 for potential unintended acceleration with causes such as stuck accelerators and floor mats that shifted out of position.

$1.63 Billion

That settlement was valued at as much as $1.63 billion by plaintiffs’ lawyers. It was approved by a judge in Santa Ana, California, who oversees the acceleration-related lawsuits consolidated in federal court. No personal injury or wrongful death case among them has gone to trial.

Toyota won a trial in 2011 in a case brought by a Long Island, New York, doctor who blamed sudden unintended acceleration for an accident with his 2005 Scion TC. The jury took less than an hour to find the carmaker wasn’t at fault. The suit wasn’t one of the consolidated federal cases.

The company in 2010 agreed to pay $10 million to settle with the family of a California Highway Patrol officer who died with his wife, 13-year-old daughter and brother-in-law when a Lexus ES350 loaned by a San Diego dealership accelerated out of control and crashed. A law enforcement report said an incorrectly installed, incompatible floor mat trapped the gas pedal and caused the car to accelerate.

Fatal Accident

Noriko Uno died Aug. 28, 2009. While she was running errands, her car was struck by one driven by an 86-year-old driver who ran a stop sign and who is also defendant at the trial.

The Camry spun, and Uno’s foot got stuck between the gas and brake pedals, the family said in court papers, and the car accelerated out of control.

Noriko Uno tried in vain to brake with her left foot, according to the family. After about half a mile her car struck a tree as she tried to avoid oncoming traffic, the family said.

If the Camry had had a brake override system, the car would have stopped when both the gas and brake pedals were pressed, the family’s lawyer said in the filing.

Toyota said in court papers that it’s impossible for Uno’s foot to have been stuck for 30 seconds between the brake and gas pedals.

No Evidence

A brake override system wouldn’t have made a difference because there’s no substantial evidence that she was trying to brake, the company said.

“Approximately 14 witnesses observed Uno as she travelled in the wrong direction,” Toyota said in its memorandum to the court. “Thirteen witnesses testified they never saw brake lights on the Camry, and the only witness who said she saw brake lights, said she saw the Camry brake lights go on for a second then off, then on and off again.”

The fatal crash occurred because Uno mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal rather than the brake, Toyota said. Unintended acceleration is almost always caused by “pedal error,” whose likelihood increases due to factors such as driver age, gender, height, medical condition, distractions and unexpected events, the carmaker said.

Toyota said Uno suffered from medical conditions, including low blood sugar, which impaired her cognitive abilities and caused her to drive away after the first accident, when her car had been stopped.

The cases are In re Toyota Motor Cases, JCCP4621, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County (Los Angeles).

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