OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – Toyota Motor Corp. must pay $3 million to the families of an Oklahoma woman killed and another seriously injured when the 2005 Camry they were riding in suddenly surged out of control and crashed into an embankment, an Oklahoma state court jury decided last week.
The verdict came as welcome news to the families of Barbara Schwarz, who was killed in the horrific 2007 crash, and Jean Bookout, the driver, who survived with debilitating injuries. It also represents a significant milestone for hundreds of other plaintiffs with personal-injury and wrongful-death lawsuits against Toyota pending in the U.S. as it was the first time a jury was persuaded by arguments that faulty electronics are to blame for sudden, unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles.
Following the verdict, Toyota approached counsel for plaintiffs regarding a settlement. Toyota insisted that the terms of a settlement were to remain confidential. The parties were able to resolve the case for a confidential amount before the jury considered the amount of punitive damages.
Toyota has adamantly denied that sudden acceleration in its vehicles is tied to the electronic throttle system or the computer code governing it, insisting instead that floor mats can potentially jam the throttle in open position. The automaker recalled more than 8 million vehicles in 2009 and 2010 to replace driver’s side floor mats and shorten the accelerator pedal. Many of the same vehicles were recalled again later to replace defective throttle assemblies that could stick in position or become slow to respond.
According to Toyota documents and Congressional testimony, floor mats and sticking throttles accounted for just 16 percent of sudden-acceleration complaints.
Explaining incidents not linked to floor mats or sticky throttles, Toyota officials blamed driver error, arguing drivers, including Mrs. Bookout, confused the accelerator pedal for the brake pedal.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the lack of a brake override system exacerbated Toyota’s unintended-acceleration problem. Brake override systems are a failsafe mechanism standard in many automotive brands that gives braking precedence over acceleration when both pedals are simultaneously pressed.
“We are fully convinced that Toyota’s conduct from the time the electronic throttle control system (ETCS) was designed has been shameful” said Beasley Allen attorney, J. Cole Portis, who represented the plaintiffs in the Oklahoma case. “We appreciate that the jury had the courage to let Toyota and the public know that Toyota was reckless. Hopefully, Toyota will recall all of their questionable vehicles and install a computer that will be safe.”
Also representing the plaintiffs in the case are Beasley Allen attorneys Jere Beasley, Graham Esdale, Benjamin Baker, and Larry Tawwater of The Tawwater Law Firm in Oklahoma City.