ONTARIO, Calif., — A deadly New Year’s Eve crash that claimed the lives of five people in Ontario, Calif., has attracted the attention of federal transportation safety investigators after reports emerged that the offending vehicle – a Toyota Yaris – started to speed out of control.
The report could reignite concerns of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, a defect that potentially affected millions of vehicles in the U.S. as early as 2007, causing unexpected high-power acceleration and crashes.
A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told CBS News that it sent a special crash investigations team to the Los Angeles-area city to work with specialists from the California Highway Patrol in inspecting the Yaris.
The crash occurred just after 7 p.m. after the Yaris “began to accelerate uncontrollably” while driving east on the Interstate 10, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department reported. The driver of the Yaris was “unable to stop or slow the car” and drove off the interstate at the Vineyard Avenue exit in Ontario, colliding with a Toyota Solara that, according to one witness, just pulled out of a gas station.
The crash killed all four occupants of the Solara and a seven-year-old boy who was riding in the speeding Yaris. The driver of the Yaris, along with a 16-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl who were passengers, are being treated for injuries at Loma Linda Medical Center in Loma Linda, Calif.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the boy died in a nearby emergency room. The other four victims in the Solara died at the scene. They were identified as Matthew Pusateri, 29, of Mission Viejo; Anthony Flores, 30, of Hemet; Jeffrey Willey, 29, of Huntington Beach; and Monica Flores, 37, of Arcadia.
In late 2009, Toyota began recalling vehicles affected by the sudden unintended acceleration defect, which it insisted stemmed from floor mat jams. Critics, independent engineers, and safety experts, however, blamed the problem on an electronic glitch in the vehicles’ operating systems. Recalls were extended into 2010, with approximately 5.2 million vehicles recalled for the “floor mat” problem and an additional 2.3 million vehicles for defective accelerator pedals. Nearly 2 million vehicles were affected by both recalls.
Beasley Allen lawyers were involved in litigation surrounding the Toyota sudden unintended acceleration from the beginning. They alleged the problem was actually bigger: the software in the Toyota that controlled the electronic throttle system was poorly designed and did not conform to industry standards.
In October 2013, Beasley Allen lawyers went to trial on behalf of the family of Jean Bookout. She was injured and her passenger Barbara Schwarz was killed in a September 2007 crash involving a Toyota Camry. The jury’s verdict in this landmark acceleration case — awarding $3 million in compensatory damages and finding that the plaintiffs were entitled to punitive damages — not only led Toyota to settle the case for a confidential amount before the jury could determine the amount of punitive damages, but caused Toyota to try to reach a global settlement of the hundreds and hundreds of cases pending in multidistrict litigation proceedings.