Toyota defeats stuck-throttle California lawsuit

Jury finds for carmaker in wrongful-death test case over unexpected acceleration of its cars

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 October, 2013, 3:20am

A jury in California has found Toyota not liable in one of the first wrongful-death legal actions to go to trial in the US over alleged defects that caused some vehicles to unexpectedly accelerate.

The closely watched case was brought by the husband and son of Noriko Uno, 66, who was in a 2009 crash involving a 2006 Toyota Camry.

It is among hundreds of similar cases facing Toyota over acceleration issues, which prompted the carmaker to recall millions of vehicles since 2009 for possible sudden, unintended acceleration-related issues, including floor mats that could jam under the accelerator, and sticky brake pedals.

The company has agreed to pay more than US$1 billion to resolve actions where owners said the value of their vehicles dived after Toyota's recalls.

Uno's car was not subject to the acceleration-related recalls.

The Camry was struck by another vehicle and then sped out of control down a busy California road until it hit a tree, killing Uno.

Her family accused Toyota of failing to install brake-override systems that could have stopped out-of-control acceleration in vehicles sold in the United States.

"Regarding the verdict, we are gratified that the jury concluded the design of the 2006 Camry did not contribute to this unfortunate accident, affirming the same conclusion we reached after more than three years of careful investigation - that there was nothing wrong with the vehicle at issue in this case," a Toyota spokeswoman said.

"We believe this verdict sets a significant benchmark by helping further confirm that Toyota vehicles are safe with or without brake override."

The jury attributed full liability for Uno's death to the driver of the other vehicle. It said that driver should pay US$10 million in damages to Uno's husband and son.

Outside California, Toyota has won both injury cases that reached jury verdicts since the recalls. One was in New York in 2011 and the other in Philadelphia in June this year. A trial is under way in Oklahoma City over a crash that left one woman dead and another injured.

Toyota is facing a fifth trial next month in Santa Ana, California. There are about 200 death and injury cases pending in the state. Another case is set for trial in February in Michigan.

In the Los Angeles case, Toyota lawyers argued that the lack of a brake-override system in the Camry wasn't to blame for the accident because Uno didn't try to brake.

Uno's medical condition, including diabetes, caused her to experience cognitive impairment after her car was struck by the other vehicle, which had run a red light.

Uno's son, Jeffrey, said he was "very happy with the verdict but disappointed about the outcome with respect to Toyota".

"I wish the best for the other cases and hope that they'll have better luck and an outcome that will shed more light on the problems in Toyota vehicles," Uno said.

Lawyer Garo Mardirossian, who had sought damages of US$20 million, said he was happy that the family had won damages from the other driver.

Toyota "got away by the skin of its teeth", he said. "We had so many missing pieces in this case - the woman's dead, she couldn't talk."

Mardirossian said he had another case against Toyota involving allegations of sudden acceleration by a plaintiff who would be able to testify about it. That case "is much more straightforward".

John Duffy, who represented the driver found liable in the accident on behalf of her insurance company, said he was 'stunned' by the amount the jury awarded to the Unos. When asked if they would appeal, Duffy said: ''It sure looks like we will have to."

Reuters, Bloomberg