MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

October 26, 2013

Oklahoma judge: Settlement reached in Toyota case

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Toyota Motor Corp. on Friday reached a settlement with the victims of a deadly 2007 car crash, a day after an Oklahoma Country jury became the first in the country to find the company liable in a case of sudden unintended acceleration.

On Thursday, the jury awarded a total of $3 million in monetary damages to the injured driver of the 2005 Camry involved in the crash, and to the family of the passenger, who was killed.

The ruling was significant because it was the first case where plaintiffs argued that a car’s electronics — in this case the software connected to the Camry’s electronic throttle-control system — caused the unintended acceleration. The Japanese automaker recalled millions of cars, starting in 2009, following claims of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. It has denied that electronics played any role in the problem.

The Japanese automaker had won all previous unintended acceleration cases that went to trial. Legal experts said the Oklahoma verdict might cause Toyota to consider a broad settlement of the remaining cases, but that the company is likely to fight a few more cases before making that decision.

On Friday, Judge Patricia Parrish announced the parties had reached a deal that eliminated the need for the second stage of the trial over punitive damages. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but Toyota agreed not to appeal the jury’s decision, said Jere Beasley, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

“You can rest assured they did not want to go to the punitive phase,” Beasley said.

Toyota has blamed drivers, stuck accelerators or floor mats that trapped the gas pedal for the sudden unintended acceleration claims that led to the big recalls of Camrys and other vehicles. No recalls have been issued related to problems with the vehicle’s onboard electronics. In the Oklahoma case, Toyota attorneys theorized that the driver, Jean Bookout, mistakenly pumped the gas pedal instead of the brake when her Camry ran through an intersection near Eufaula and slammed into an embankment.

Toyota said in a statement Friday that it disagreed with the verdict, and vowed to “defend our products vigorously at trial in other legal venues.”

But Sean Kane, who heads a safety research company in Massachusetts, said the ruling in the Oklahoma case could influence how Toyota proceeds with the dozens of pending lawsuits that target the vehicle’s electronics.

“It’s important that this case is only one of many we’ve examined in which you can point to nothing other than the electronics system in the car,” Kane said. “The problem for Toyota in this case was there was a preponderance of evidence to show this wasn’t a driver error issue, and it clearly wasn’t a floor mat.”

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