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Toyota case finally heads to court

2013-07-22 12:02

TOYOTA ON TRIAL: Peter Uno (left), husband of Noriko Uno, and their son Jeffrey show a photograph of the 66-year-old bookkeeper, who died in an alleged sudden unintended acceleration crash in August 2009. Image: AP

Noriko Uno was afraid of driving fast, often avoiding the freeway and taking the same route every day from and to her family's sushi restaurant. She racked up 16 000km on her 2006 Camry in four years.

So when her car unexpectedly accelerated to speeds up to 160km/h in August 2009, the 66-year-old bookkeeper did everything she could to slow down, stepping on the brake pedal and pulling the emergency handle as she swerved to avoid hitting other vehicles.

Uno was killed when her car crashed into a telephone 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.

The claim made by drivers has plagued the Japanese automaker and led to lawsuits, settlements and recalls of millions of its vehicles.

Attorney Garo Mardirossian, who is representing Uno's husband and son, said: "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."

Toyota stated there was no defect in Uno's Camry. The automaker has blamed such crashes on accelerators that got stuck due to floor mats and driver error.

The automaker has settled some wrongful death cases and agreed to pay more than R9.8-billion to resolve lawsuits where owners said the value of their vehicles plummeted after Toyota's recalls due to sudden-acceleration concerns.

The trial is expected to last two months. The proceeding represents the first of the bellwether cases in state courts, which are chosen by a judge to help predict the potential outcome of other lawsuits making similar claims.


Other cases expected to go to trial in state courts in 2013 year include one in Oklahoma and another in Michigan. More than 80 cases have been filed in state courts.

Toyota’s litigation has gone on parallel tracks in US state and federal courts with both sides agreeing to settlements so far. A federal judge in Orange County is dealing with both wrongful death and economic loss lawsuits that have been consolidated. He's expected to give final approval to the economic loss settlement later in July 2013.

Federal lawsuits contend that Toyota's electronic throttle control system was defective and caused vehicles to surge unexpectedly. The plaintiffs' attorneys have deposed Toyota employees, reviewed software code and pored over thousands of documents.

Toyota has denied the allegation and neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor NASA found evidence of electronic problems. A trial in one of the lead cases is scheduled for November 2013.


Uno's trial will likely focus on why Toyota didn't have a mechanism to override the accelerator if the throttle and brake pedals are pressed simultaneously in Camrys sold in the US. Mardirossian said the automaker installed a brake override system in its European fleet.

Toyota said Uno's vehicle was equipped with a "state-of-the-art" braking system and denied any defect played a role in her death.

Toyota said: "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 Uno's vehicle."

Legal observers said Uno's attorneys won't necessarily have to prove what was wrong with the vehicle, but show that the accident could have been prevented with a brake override system.

Gregory Keating, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said: "If the plaintiff succeeds in convincing a jury it wasn't human error, that it was attributed to the car, I think they have a strong case.

"Jurors, as drivers, are likely to believe strongly that cars shouldn't become uncontrollable in this way."

Mardirossian said: Uno was a cautious driver and neither floor mats nor driver error was to blame. He said witnesses heard the Camry engine and saw brake lights going on and off. Mardirossian said: "Imagine her strapped into her Toyota Camry driving 160km/h knowing the next move would be fatal. She saved many lives by veering off into that center mediam knowing that death was near."

Pulling the handbrake had "zero effect," Mardirossian reported.


On August 28, 2009, the same day as Uno’s crash, off-duty California highway patrol officer Mark Saylor and three family members were killed on a San Diego freeway when their 2009 Lexus ES 350 reached speeds of more than 193km/h. The vehicle struck an SUV, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames.

An emergency call captured Saylor's brother-in-law telling the others to pray before the car crashed.

Toyota, which builds the luxury Lexus brand, agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the victims' family for an equivalent of R98-million. An inquiry into the crash led to recalls of millions of Toyota vehicles. Investigators said an “incorrect floor mat trapped the accelerator and caused the accident.”

The Uno family lawsuit, which claims product liability and negligence, seeks general and punitive damages. Mardirossian said Uno's relatives want to have a jury decide that the crash was not her fault.

Mardirossian said: "They want to make sure to get their loved one's name cleared."
Read more on:    toyota  |  crash  |  industry

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