Consumer Fraud

Federal judge gives a green light to sudden acceleration lawsuits

A federal judge in Santa Ana, California dealt Toyota a major legal blow when he rejected the automaker’s petition to have all class-action lawsuits seeking damages related to sudden-unintended-acceleration (SUA) issues thrown out.

Toyota argued that many plaintiffs did not state specific losses in dollars and that many of them did not experience any malfunctions that caused their vehicles to speed out of control and were suing on the basis of the loss in resale value.

In his Nov. 19 ruling however, Judge James V. Selina said that specific damages are not required at this stage in the legal process and that said that lawyers for owners of the Toyota vehicles have provided enough evidence to allow their cases to go forward.

“The court finds that plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged a fraudulent concealment claim under California law,” said the tentative ruling. “The record of complaints made by Toyota customers shows that Toyota was clearly aware of the alleged SUA problem. Although Toyota discounts plaintiffs’ allegations of an SUA defect, the amassed weight of these complaints suggests that plaintiffs’ [unexplained SUA events] were not isolated cases.”

The ruling means that Toyota could be liable for sudden-acceleration damages in the future, including those filed over loss of value. Some attorneys say the decision could mean the potential class could include as many as 40 million Toyota owners, but the judge indicated he would probably reject claims of some plaintiffs who say they deserve a full refund for their vehicles.

Toyota responded to the ruling, saying it is “confident that no such proof [of a defect in its electronic throttle control system] exists.” The automaker has insisted that an electronic defect is not to blame for the sudden acceleration incidents, and says that now the plaintiffs must provide the burden of proof that such a defect exists.

Toyota has recalled about 8.5 million vehicles for defects that have the potential to cause sudden unexpected acceleration. The car maker insists most of these cases are either the result of floor mat interference or driver confusion.