Consumer Fraud

New York jurors hear Toyota sudden unintended acceleration case

An emergency-room physician from Long Island, New York, told a jury Monday that Toyota failed to warn him that his 2005 Scion could unexpectedly speed out of control. The plaintiff was injured in October 2005 when he attempted to park his Toyota vehicle in the driveway of his Port Washington, New York, home. But instead of coming to a stop, the Scion suddenly accelerated. The plaintiff could not stop the car and it sped out of control until he hit a tree.

The doctor’s lawsuit is the first sudden unintended acceleration claim to reach a jury trial since Toyota launched a series of sweeping recalls. Most of the federal lawsuits filed against Toyota for damages related to sudden, unintended acceleration were combined before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana, California. The doctor’s lawsuit, however, was filed before Toyota announced any recalls and thus it wasn’t sent to Selna, who is organizing the litigation and overseeing pre-trial evidence gathering. Selna plans to begin hearing the first Toyota trials in early 2013.

“An accident did not simply happen,” the plaintiff’s lawyer said in his opening statement yesterday in the Central Islip, New York, federal court. “An accident was caused by the negligence” of Toyota, he asserted.

The plaintiff says there are just three causes behind his sudden acceleration incident: the electronic throttle controls, the driver-side floor mat jamming the accelerator pedal, and Toyota’s failure to install a brake-override system in his vehicle. The plaintiff alleges that Toyota was aware of other sudden-acceleration incidents before his own crash occurred and should have warned the public earlier than it did.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered Toyota to pay two record fines for its delays in warning U.S. regulators and the American public about defects that could potentially cause its vehicles to speed out of control unexpectedly. In fact, if not for the NHTSA’s $16-million statutory cap, which was enacted in 2006, Toyota would have owed the federal government $13.8 billion for its failure to comply with U.S. regulations.

Toyota’s defense team argues that the plaintiff in this case mistook the gas pedal for the brake.