Toyota agrees to settlements in lawsuits filed over sudden vehicle acceleration

by John Chapman

Toyota has recently settled what would have been the first trial among a group of hundreds of pending wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits involving sudden, unintended acceleration by Toyota vehicles. The case was brought by the family of Paul Van Alfen and Charlene Jones Lloyd, who were killed when their Toyota Camry slammed into a wall in Utah in 2010.

Toyota has also recently agreed to a settlement worth more than $1 billion to resolve lawsuits claiming economic losses (as opposed to injury and death) Toyota owners suffered when the Japanese automaker recalled millions of vehicles. About 16 million Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles sold in the United States spanning the model years 1998 to 2010 are covered by the settlement. Company officials have maintained that the electronic throttle control system was not at fault, instead blaming ill-fitting floor mats and sticky gas pedals.

The Van Alfen case was to be the first case to go trial among many consolidated wrongful death and personal injury cases. A second case is scheduled for trial in May. Prior to the case consolidation, Toyota had settled a previous wrongful death lawsuit for $10 million in 2010. In that case, a California Highway Patrol officer and family members were killed in San Diego after their Toyota-built Lexus reached speeds of more than 120 mph, hit an SUV, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames. Investigators determined that a wrong-size floor mat trapped the accelerator and caused the crash. That investigation ultimately led to a series of recalls involving more than 14 million vehicles.

In the recently-settled Van Alfen case, the driver was driving his Camry on the interstate in Utah when it suddenly accelerated. Skid marks showed that Van Alfen tried to stop the vehicle as it exited the interstate. The car went through a stop sign at the bottom of the ramp and through an intersection before hitting the wall. The Utah Highway Patrol concluded based on statements from witnesses and the crash survivors that the gas pedal was stuck.

Toyota has also agreed to pay a $17.35 million fine — the maximum currently allowed for a single violation — to settle federal allegations that it took too long to report problems that led to its June recall of 2010 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450h crossover SUVs. The vehicles were recalled because the floor mat could trap the gas pedal, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration documents.

This is the fourth fine the company has paid in recent years over charges that it was not quick enough in reporting incidents and conducting recalls. The earlier fines involved recalls for sticky gas pedals and gas pedal entrapment by floor mats that could lead to unintended acceleration, as well as for a steering rod issue that could result in the loss of steering control. Previous fines in 2010 totaled $48.8 million — one for $16 million and two for the then-maximum of $16.4 million.

According to Toyota, the floor mat pedal entrapment recalls resulted from the potential for an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat to interfere with, or entrap, the accelerator pedal in the wide-open position. A vehicle with an entrapped accelerator pedal may be difficult to control and/or stop. Pedal entrapment can occur in vehicles in which the driver’s side floor mat is not compatible with the vehicle and/or is not properly installed and secured. It can also occur when there is a loose item or debris on the driver’s side floor.

It appears that Toyota may not be the only manufacturer having problems with unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mats that interfere with or entrap the accelerator pedal and cause it to get stuck in the wide open position. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has upgraded its Ford defect investigation, originally launched in May 2010, to an “engineering analysis,” its most serious level of inquiry. The agency also broadened the investigation’s scope to include almost twice as many vehicles. Under review are 2008 through 2010 Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ sedans; previously only the 2010 Fusion and Milan were being considered. According to the NHTSA, the agency has reviewed 52 driver complaints about the problem, including 41 submitted by Ford as part of the inquiry. Many of the complaints describe sedans surging out of control and proving difficult to stop as the engine roars. NHTSA said the acceleration might be caused by sticking floor mats.

Car and truck manufacturers have a duty to build a car that is as safe as is reasonably possible under the present state of mechanical technology, vehicle design, and safety. Manufacturers are obligated to design vehicles so that they are safe for any reasonably foreseeable use.

If you or a loved one have been seriously injured in a car accident, it may well be that the injuries were caused or made worse because the vehicle was not properly designed or manufactured. In order to determine whether you may have a case, you need to retain experienced, qualified legal counsel at the earliest opportunity.

At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we have the experience, knowledge and expertise to pursue a product liability or personal injury claim against any of the major auto manufacturers.

To speak with a lawyer about your case, contact Heygood, Orr & Pearson by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by filling out our free case evaluation form.

by John Chapman

John Chapman is a licensed attorney with experience in complex commercial litigation (including securities fraud, RICO, shareholder oppression, and derivative actions) and personal injury litigation.