Toyota Motor Corp. has been having open talks to settle hundreds of state and federal lawsuits alleging that defects caused its vehicles to accelerate suddenly and crash, resulting in serious injuries and deaths.
The decision to enter what the courts called an “intensive settlement process” could bring closure to plaintiffs who have been battling the world’s largest automaker since 2009 and to Toyota, which already has spent as much as $2 billion in legal costs and suffered damage to its reputation.
Perhaps there is another reason Toyota may try to end its long legal battle: It recently lost its first trial in a sudden-acceleration case when an Oklahoma jury found that defective electronics on a Camry caused an accident that killed one woman and seriously injured another. The jury assessed a $3 million verdict against Toyota.
“The watershed moment must have been that loss in Oklahoma,” said Byron Stier, a professor at Southwestern Law School. “It was such a shock. People thought sudden acceleration was a dead issue, but the verdict changed everything.”
Toyota still faces more than 300 lawsuits in federal and state courts nationwide, most of which have been consolidated in Southern California, with the federal cases in a U.S. District Court in Santa Ana and the state cases in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Under the court’s orders, Toyota will begin settlement discussions on a case-by-case basis in February. If a deal cannot be reached, the lawsuits will go before a mediator. If still unresolved, they could be returned to a trial schedule.
It’s unclear how long it could take to complete the settlement process in the consolidation cases, but plaintiff’s attorneys said that they were confident that most, if not all of the cases would be resolved without trial.
Toyota is also expected to try to resolve a handful of pending state cases that were not consolidated. Some are scheduled for trial early next year.
One of the next cases is scheduled for trial February 19th in a Michigan state court. It involves the same model as in the Oklahoma case. The driver, Guadalupe Alberto, crashed her 2005 Camry into a tree after sudden acceleration. He died in the crash.
In 2009 a California Highway patrolman died in a fiery crash as he drove his Toyota with his family. Toyota paid $10 million to settle this case. This case brought national attention to the sudden acceleration issue, which led to a series of investigative reports by the Los Angeles Times.
Toyota eventually recalled more than 10 million vehicles worldwide. The automaker paid more than $65 million in fines for violating federal vehicle safety laws.
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