The first lawsuits filed in federal courts against Toyota will be tried as belwether cases sometime during the first quarter of 2013, Judge James Selna of U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, California, announced yesterday. Judge Selna asked plaintiffs’ lawyers to be prepared to select the belwether cases, which will serve as test cases to determine how the rest of the litigation will proceed.
More than 100 lawsuits against Toyota filed in federal courts across the country were consolidated last April for pretrial proceedings and assigned to Judge Selna, whose courtroom is located near Toyota’s North American headquarters in Torrance. The number of lawsuits has since grown to over 200, with potentially hundreds more pending in different state courts around the country.
The product liability lawsuits include both personal injury and wrongful death claims stemming from the allegation that many Toyota and Lexus vehicles have a defect that can potentially cause sudden, unintended acceleration. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulators continue to investigate whether sudden, unintended acceleration is to blame to for killing 89 Americans since 2000.
Plaintiffs accuse Toyota of ignoring evidence that its electronic throttle systems were flawed, containing the potential to cause vehicles to speed out of control. At the same time, plaintiffs say, Toyota chose not to install a brake override system that would have prevented sudden acceleration incidents from occurring. Brake override systems are standard features in many automobiles and effectively kill the throttle when a driver brakes at a high rate of speed.
Toyota recalled 8.5 million vehicles in the U.S. for the potential sudden, unintended acceleration flaw, but insists the problem is caused by the driver-side floor mat trapping the gas pedal in full open position or driver error.
Last September, the automaker quietly agreed to pay $10 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Mark Saylor, the California Highway Patrol officer who was killed with his family when their rented Lexus ES 350 sped out of control and crashed near San Diego in August 2009. That crash ignited the federal government’s longstanding suspicions that Toyota and Lexus vehicles contained a defect that caused them to accelerate unexpectedly.