Family claims Toyota put profits ahead of lives

Car's sudden unintended acceleration blamed for woman's fatal crash in first bellwether suit

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2013, 3:40am

Noriko Uno was afraid of driving fast, often avoiding the freeway and taking the same route every day from her Los Angeles home to and from her family's sushi restaurant. She had put only 16,000 kilometres on her 2006 Camry in about four years.

So when her car unexpectedly accelerated to 160km/h in a 50km/h zone, the bookkeeper, 66, did all she could to slow down, stepping on the brake and pulling the emergency handle as she swerved to avoid hitting other vehicles. Uno was killed when her car hit a pole and a tree.

Her case is the first to go to trial in a proceeding that could determine whether Toyota should be held liable for sudden unintended acceleration in its vehicles - a claim that plagued the Japanese carmaker and led to lawsuits, settlements and recalls of millions of its cars and SUVs.

"Toyota decided to make safety an option instead of a standard on their vehicles," said lawyer Garo Mardirossian, who is representing Uno's family. "They decided to save a few bucks, and by doing so, it cost lives."

Toyota has said there was no defect in Uno's Camry. It has blamed such crashes on accelerators that got stuck, floor mats that trapped the pedal and driver error. It has settled some wrongful death cases and agreed to pay more than US$1 billion to resolve lawsuits where owners said the car's value plummeted after Toyota's recalls because of sudden-acceleration concerns.

The Uno trial is the first of the bellwether cases in state courts, which are chosen by a judge to help predict the potential outcome of similar lawsuits. Others expected to go to trial this year include one in Oklahoma and one in Michigan. More than 80 cases have been filed in state courts.

Toyota decided to make safety an option instead of a standard on their vehicles. They decided to save a few bucks, and by doing so, it cost lives
Lawyer Garo Mardirossian 

Federal lawsuits contend that Toyota's electronic throttle-control system was defective and caused unexpected surges.

The trial will likely focus on why Toyota did not have a mechanism to override the accelerator if the accelerator and brake pedals are pressed simultaneously in US-sold Camrys. The carmaker put the override system in its European fleet.

Mardirossian said neither floor mats nor driver error were to blame in Uno's case. "Imagine her strapped into her Toyota Camry … knowing the next move would be fatal," he said. "She saved many lives by veering off into that centre median knowing that death was near."