July 27, 2013

Toyota faces first lawsuit over acceleration problems

Some people have died and others were injured by vehicles that unexpectedly speed up.

Los Angeles Times

(Continued from page 1)

Jeffrey Uno, Peter Uno
click image to enlarge

Accompanied by Peter Uno, his father, left, Jeffrey Uno holds a photo of his mother, Noriko Uno, who died in an alleged “sudden unintended acceleration” crash in a Toyota Camry in August 2009. The case is a bellwether for Toyota.

2010 AP file photo

In recent years, NHTSA has mandated that cars get anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control systems. The agency is considering ordering manufacturers to make backup cameras standard. Last year, NHTSA proposed a rule to make brake override systems mandatory in vehicles sold in the United States, but it has yet to issue a final regulation.

Toyota still faces roughly 300 personal injury and death lawsuits related to sudden acceleration in state and federal courts. The first federal bellwether case -- involving an elderly Georgia woman whose Camry raced through a schoolyard before crashing into a wall -- is scheduled to begin in November in Santa Ana. The driver, Ida Starr St. John, was not killed but has since died; her attorneys have contended the accident led to her death.

Two other California cases are scheduled for next year. Lawyers involved in those suits have suggested that they may try to convince juries that Toyota vehicles have internal electronic defects that can cause sudden acceleration.

But that could be a higher hurdle. Investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NASA and the National Academy of Sciences found no flaws in the automaker's electronics that could provoke the problem.

Toyota has largely rebuilt an image damaged by the spate of sudden acceleration incidents and recalls.

In 2009, Toyota accounted for 17 percent of U.S. auto sales. But Toyota's market share plunged following the high-profile accident that killed off-duty Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and three members of his family near San Diego.

That crash led to a safety investigation and recall of millions of Toyota and Lexus vehicles to fix a problem with floor mats that interfered with the gas pedal. After a Los Angeles Times series on unintended acceleration, Toyota took the extremely rare step of halting all sales of its vehicles in the United States. The automaker ultimately issued millions more recall notices to fix sticking gas pedals and other issues. In the last three years, Toyota has paid federal fines of nearly $70 million for failing to promptly inform regulators of defects and for delaying recalls.

But recently, Toyota seems to have put the scandals in the rearview mirror. Consumers either shrugged off or ignored the recalls and alleged incidents of unexpected acceleration. Toyota's Camry remains the bestselling sedan in America. The automaker will soon start selling a redesigned Corolla, another top seller, that was aging and badly needed a remake. Meanwhile, the Prius has defied skeptics of hybrid vehicles to become the top-selling car in California.

A prominent trial and allegations surrounding Uno's crash and death could reverse that success, said Jack Nerad, analyst at car information company Kelley Blue Book.

"It will cause some buyers to think twice about considering Toyota," Nerad said. "It means Toyota's name will be in the news in a negative way."


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