LOS ANGELES – As Toyota Motor Corp. chips away at settling lawsuits claiming its vehicles suddenly accelerate, the question remains whether attorneys who sued could prove to a jury there was a design flaw.
The company maintains stuck accelerator pedals, faulty floor mats and driver error are the reasons for vehicles unexpectedly surging, while plaintiffs’ attorneys contend Toyota’s electronic throttle control system is to blame.
Recent settlements totaling more than $1 billion by Toyota to resolve numerous lawsuits involving economic loss and a few involving wrongful death claims may signal that the automaker doesn’t want to risk coming out on the losing end of a potentially costly court decision.
“A bad loss in a jury trial would inflict lasting damage to Toyota in loss of public confidence,” said Los Angeles-based attorney Christine Spagnoli, who has won several multimillion-dollar verdicts against automakers over safety defects. “I believe Toyota will continue to look for better opportunities to get a win.”
The company said Thursday it settled a lawsuit with the family of two people killed in a Utah crash that was set to go to trial next month and serve as a test case for hundreds of others that are pending.
Terms of the agreement weren’t released, but it comes just weeks after Toyota agreed to pay more than $1 billion to settle lawsuits where vehicle owners said the value of their cars and SUVs plummeted after the company recalled millions of vehicles because of sudden acceleration issues.
In the Utah case, Paul Van Alfen and his son’s fiancee, Charlene Jones Lloyd, were killed when their Camry slammed into a wall near Wendover, Utah, in 2010. The Utah Highway Patrol concluded based on statements from witnesses and the crash survivors that the gas pedal was stuck.
Wayne Mason, a product liability attorney in Dallas, doesn’t believe Thursday’s settlement portends poorly for either side going forward.
“This is like taking an aspirin when you have a migraine,” Mason said. “Each of these cases has to be weighed on their own merit. I will be surprised if some don’t get tried.”
In a statement announcing the Van Alfen settlement, Toyota said there will be a number of other chances to defend itself in court, although the company may “decide from time to time” to settle select cases.
“It would seem that Toyota did not want a public airing of the evidence that has been gathered in the lawsuits, so that it can continue to say that there is not a problem,” Spagnoli said. “If Toyota felt it could have successfully defended its products in these cases, it would have welcomed a public trial.”