Toyota riding momentum in wild acceleration cases

LOS ANGELES — While Toyota Motor Corp. still faces a bundle of lawsuits claiming that defective electronics caused some of its cars to accelerate uncontrollably, often with tragic results, another courtroom victory has given the automaker momentum heading into those other cases.

Jurors deliberated for about five days in Los Angeles before concluding Thursday that the automaker was not liable for the death of Noriko Uno. The 66-year-old was killed in 2009 when her 2006 Toyota Camry was struck by another car, then continued on a harrowing ride until it slammed into a telephone pole and tree.

Toyota’s lawyers said the sedan’s design was not to blame and Uno likely mistook the gas pedal for the brake. Jurors cleared the Japanese automaker but decided that the other driver, who ran a stop sign, should pay Uno’s family $10 million.

The Uno case was one of hundreds of “unintended acceleration” lawsuits still pending in federal and state courts against Toyota. It is the first “bellwether” case in state courts, chosen by a judge to help predict the potential outcome of other lawsuits making similar claims. Another state case began this week in Oklahoma.

The Los Angeles case posed a different theory than the others.

Uno’s family claimed that the crash could have been avoided if Toyota had installed a brake override system, which deadens the accelerator if the driver hits the brakes. Other cases claim that an electronics defect caused the sudden, unintended acceleration that preceded crashes.

One plaintiff’s attorney who settled a class-action case against Toyota in December for more than $1 billion said the Uno case seemed easier to win than the cases claiming failures in vehicles’ electronic throttle control systems.

“The chances of a software glitch causing an unintended acceleration are one in a million,” said Steve W. Berman, whose lawsuit asserted that the value of Toyota cars and trucks plummeted after a series of recalls stemming from unintended acceleration claims.

While plaintiff’s experts will argue that lab simulations strongly suggest crashes were caused by a software problem, Toyota’s lawyers will argue that there are other plausible explanations. Without hard data to prove a glitch was the cause, Berman said, jurors may reasonably have doubts.

But a lawyer whose case will go before a federal jury in early November discounted the broader impact of Thursday’s verdict.

Because the Uno case involved acceleration after an initial accident, “that gave the jury a way out and allowed them to simply assign all the liability to the first collision,” attorney Todd A. Walburg said. He is bringing a claim that a Camry in Georgia accelerated uncontrollably due to defective electronics before crashing into a school.

Walburg said he believes his case is a winner, but his legal team faces several challenges. One is that all 12 jurors must agree Toyota was liable; another, he said, is that the carmaker picked the case as a “bellwether” federal trial.

“Theoretically, it should be Toyota’s strongest case,” Walburg said. “If we’re able to win this case, Toyota will have a lot of thinking to do.”

The Los Angeles verdict added to Toyota’s legal victories: In 2011, a federal jury in New York found that the company wasn’t responsible for a 2005 crash.

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