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Toyota crash settlement sealed

2010-09-21 08:42

John Antczak

A judge has said he is inclined to keep confidential a settlement between Toyota and the relatives of four people killed when a driver was unable to stop a runaway Lexus.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr said he would probably sign such a sealing order.

An attorney for Bob Baker Lexus, the dealer that loaned the family the car, objected because Toyota's settlement doesn't cover separate negligence claims against the dealership. The attorney, Larry Willis, said Toyota wanted to protect its own interests and cut out its dealer.

The August 2009 crash killed off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, their daughter and Saylor's brother-in-law. Toyota subsequently recalled millions of cars to replace floor mats it said could have caused the accelerator to jam. The Japanese automaker later recalled millions more vehicles to replace accelerator pedals it said could stick.

Mohr's announcement came during a rare joint hearing with the federal judge overseeing claims filed in federal court against Toyota. The courtroom was filled to near capacity with attorneys.

'Magnets for promoters'

Mohr, chosen to oversee all the state claims against Toyota, generally endorsed the idea of settlements between parties and offered his own take on why the terms should remain confidential.

"These people suddenly become magnets for promoters and others seeking to profit," the judge said. "That could well be a reason right there."

Saylor family lawyer John Gomez commented briefly about the victims' relatives after the hearing.

"I think they're still mourning and grieving but they are getting better day by day," he said. "They did it to make sure this didn't happen to other people."

Much of the hearing was conducted before US District Judge James Selna who is handling the federal side of the complex litigation stemming from hundreds of claims that defects in Toyota vehicles hurt or killed people, or caused the value of people's cars to plummet.

Class-action suit

The hearing largely dealt with the vast co-ordination efforts and upcoming decisions on whether the case will be tried under California law and what claims will be part of a class-action suit.

There are various committees of lawyers to handle the vast task. The Saylor family's lawsuit, brought by relatives including the parents of the adults who were killed, was considered among the strongest of the hundreds of cases Toyota faces.

On August 28, 2009, Saylor was killed along with his wife, Cleofe, 45, their daughter Mahala, 13, and Cleofe Saylor's brother Chris Lastrella, 39, as they drove on a freeway in suburban San Diego.

Their car reached more than 190km/h, hit a sport utility vehicle, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames.

An emergency call captured Lastrella telling the others to pray before the car launched off the embankment. - Sapa-AFP

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