Motor Vehicles

Toyota moves to settle sudden-acceleration lawsuit chosen as first bellwether case

toyota cars 435x308 Toyota moves to settle sudden acceleration lawsuit chosen as first bellwether caseIn what appears to be a move to keep potentially damaging cases from trial, Toyota Motor Corp. has agreed to settle a sudden-acceleration lawsuit filed by the families of two people killed in a 2010 crash in Utah. The case had been scheduled to go to trial February 19 as the first of three bellwether cases involving runaway Toyota vehicles. The cases were selected to represent the larger body of wrongful death and personal injury litigation the Japanese auto giant faces over allegations that its vehicles contain a defect that can cause them to accelerate suddenly and unexpectedly. Details of the settlement agreement have not been disclosed.

The Utah crash occurred in November 2010, as Paul Van Alfen, 66, was driving his 2008 Camry. According to the lawsuit, when Mr. Van Alfen exited interstate 80 in Wendover, Utah, the Camry allegedly sped up instead of slowing to a stop as Mr. Van Alfen braked. The car subsequently ran through the intersection at the end of the exit ramp and crashed into a rock wall, killing Mr. Van Alfen and his son’s fiancée, Charlene Lloyd, 38.  Also in the car were Mr. Van Alfen’s wife and son, who were injured in the crash.

The plaintiffs alleged that a defect in the Camry caused it to accelerate suddenly and that Toyota failed to include a brake override system or device to stop occurrences of sudden unintended acceleration.

Last year, Mr. Van Alfen’s family won a court order sanctioning Toyota for allegedly mishandling evidence in the case. U.S. District Judge James Selna, presiding over the Toyota lawsuits consolidated for multidistrict litigation in Santa Ana, found that Toyota lawyers and technicians had removed part of the throttle control mechanism from Mr. Van Alfen’s Camry and inspected its electronic data recorder without proper legal permission.

Judge Selna ruled that he would inform jurors in the Van Alfren trial that Toyota violated rules governing the preservation of evidence, thereby casting a “cloud of suspicion” over any testimony that Toyota’s experts offered. He also said he would advise the jurors to consider the testimony of the experts involved in the inspection of the Van Alfred vehicle “with greater caution than that of other witnesses.”

Toyota’s sudden-acceleration woes have added up to one of the costliest debacles any car maker has ever faced. In addition to recalling roughly 10 million vehicles worldwide for repairs related to sudden acceleration, Toyota has paid more than $66 million in fines to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its failure to follow federal rules governing safety recalls.

In December, Toyota agreed to settle economic-loss complaints filed by owners who said the sudden-acceleration problems led to a decline in resale value of Toyota vehicles. Toyota expects settlement of those claims to reach $1.4 billion. In November, Toyota agreed to pay $25.5 million to settle an investor lawsuit accusing Toyota of failing to disclose its knowledge of the sudden unintended acceleration problems, which caused its stock to plummet in 2010.