All federal and state litigation involving sudden, unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles has been stayed after the automaker agreed to enter into an intensive settlement process that could resolve hundreds of personal injury and wrongful death cases it faces.
Toyota has spent about $2 billion in legal costs since 2009 disputing hundreds of claims that its cars and trucks sped out of control unexpectedly, causing numerous crashes, injuries, and deaths. It has also spend millions more in efforts to restore its image and reputation as a high-quality, safety-oriented auto manufacturer as sudden-acceleration complaints continued to mount against it.
But despite a couple of early court victories, Toyota suffered a major blow October 24 when an Oklahoma jury agreed that electronic defects were to blame in a 2007 sudden-acceleration crash that killed two women in a 2005 Camry. That jury found Toyota had acted with “reckless disregard” for the women’s’ safety and returned a $3-million verdict for the plaintiffs.
Beasley Allen attorney Cole Portis, who was one of the lead attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the Oklahoma case, told the Los Angeles Times that evidence against Toyota in the case was “very, very strong.” Mr. Portis said Toyota would have a difficult time defending its computer system in the affected vehicles and predicted that without a settlement, more verdicts against the carmaker would be inevitable.
Toyota faces more than 300 other lawsuits in state and federal courts. Most of the cases, filed in federal courts nationwide, have been consolidated for multidistrict litigation (MDL) in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, Calif. Cases filed in state courts have been combined in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The two judges overseeing the consolidated cases issued orders on Thursday staying the pending cases as Toyota and plaintiffs’ lawyers entered into settlement talks. The intensive process will begin in February and pending cases will be examined on a case-by-case basis.
If the negotiations fail, the lawsuits will go before a mediator. The cases would go back to trial only if they go unresolved out of court.
The Oklahoma case was the first case to allege that faulty electronic throttle control systems (ETCS) caused Toyota and Lexus vehicles to speed out of control. Toyota has adamantly denied the allegations, blaming the problem instead on driver error or interference of the driver’s side floor mat with the accelerator.
In addition to the federal and state cases, Toyota will likely also negotiate a settlement on a few pending cases that haven’t been consolidated.