Toyota Settles Utah Sudden Acceleration Suit, Attorney Says

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Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) agreed to settle
a sudden-acceleration lawsuit stemming from a 2010 fatal crash
in Utah that was scheduled to go to trial in February, an
attorney for the plaintiffs said.

“We can confirm that the case has been settled,” lawyer
Mark Robinson said today in a phone interview. “We’ve agreed
with Toyota in the settlement agreement that we will not discuss
the terms of the settlement.”

Since November, the company has resolved at least two other
unintended-acceleration lawsuits, agreeing to pay more than $1
billion to settle claims over economic losses to car owners and
investors.

Robinson’s case was scheduled for trial Feb. 19 in federal
court in Santa Ana, California, where other sudden-acceleration
personal injury cases are consolidated. It covers the claims of
the families of two people killed in the crash. Their Camry
struck a rock wall when it exited the freeway and failed to
stop. The driver, Paul Van Alfen, and a passenger, Charlene
Lloyd, his son’s fiancee, died.

Van Alfen’s wife and son were injured in the crash. The
families have said the accident happened when the vehicle
unexpectedly accelerated and didn’t stop even after the driver
slammed on the brakes.

“Toyota will not provide a comment at this time,” Celeste Migliore, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an e-mail.
“There has been no filing with the court.”

10 Million

The company, based in Toyota City, Japan, recalled more
than 10 million vehicles for problems related to unintended
acceleration in 2009 and 2010, starting with a September 2009
announcement that it was recalling 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus
vehicles because of a defect that may cause floor mats to jam
accelerator pedals. The company later recalled vehicles over
defects involving the pedals themselves.

The recalls set off hundreds of lawsuits by Toyota owners
who contended the company drove down the value of their vehicles
by failing to disclose or fix defects and by victims and
families claiming deaths or injuries caused in crashes set off
by sudden-acceleration events.

Federal cases were combined in a multi-district litigation
before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana. Selna
set the Van Alfen suit as the first of the death or personal
injury cases before him for trial.

Toyota last month agreed to settle the economic loss
portion of the litigation. The company announced Dec. 26 it
would take a writedown of $1.1 billion to cover the cost of the
settlement. The total value of the settlement may reach $1.4
billion, including as much as $200 million in attorneys’ fees,
according to lawyers for the plaintiffs.

Preliminary Approval

Selna granted preliminary approval to the settlement Dec.
28. Final approval will be determined following a fairness
hearing set for June 14, he said.

Toyota also has paid $66.2 million in fines to the U.S.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over how some of
the recalls were conducted. The company in November agreed to
pay $25.5 million to settle an investor lawsuit claiming
Toyota’s alleged failure to disclose information on unintended
acceleration problems caused the stock to plunge in 2010.

Van Alfen’s family won a court order last year sanctioning
Toyota over the handling of evidence in the case.

Selna found that Toyota lawyers and technicians had removed
a piece of plastic from the vehicle’s throttle control mechanism
and inspected the car’s event data recorder without permission
from the plaintiffs or their lawyers.

‘Cloud of Suspicion’

The judge ruled that he was going to inform the jury in the
Van Alfen trial that Toyota’s actions violated rules about the
preservation of evidence and cast a “cloud of suspicion” over
testimony that might be offered by Toyota’s experts.

Selna said he would also inform jurors that they should
treat the testimony of Toyota personnel who inspected the
crashed 2008 Camry without plaintiffs’ lawyers present “with
greater caution than that of other witnesses.”

Van Alfen’s lawyers and Toyota agreed last month to dismiss
this order, according to the court docket.

The cases are combined as In re Toyota Motor Corp.
Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices and Products
Liability Litigation, 8:10-ml-02151, U.S. District Court,
Central District of California (Santa Ana).

To contact the reporters on this story:
Bill Callahan in federal court in San Diego at
Callahan@san.rr.com;
Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit at
mcfisk@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Michael Hytha at
mhytha@bloomberg.net

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