October 11, 2013 in Nation/World

Toyota cleared in fatal crash lawsuit

Jury awards family $10 million but absolves carmaker of blame
Ken Bensinger And Jerry Hirsch Los Angeles Times
 

A Los Angeles County jury has awarded $10 million to the family of a California woman whose 2006 Toyota Camry accelerated out of control and crashed, killing her.

But in an unexpected twist, the verdict came entirely against a woman, Olga Belo, who crashed into the Toyota, setting off the accident. Toyota was absolved of any responsibility by the jury.

“To get a $10 million verdict for a 66-year old woman is a great verdict,” said Garo Mardirossian, attorney for the family of Noriko Uno, who died at the wheel in August 2009. “It was a win, win, win.”

The surprise verdict puts an end to the first major trial against the Japanese automaker over allegations that its vehicles suffered from dangerous unintended acceleration. It marks a victory for the automaker, which has spent years and billions of dollars defending itself and still faces scores of lawsuits over the issue.

“We are gratified that the jury concluded the design of the 2006 Camry did not contribute to this unfortunate accident,” Toyota said in a statement.

Toyota faces its first federal case next month in Santa Ana, Calif., in a suit involving an elderly Georgia woman, Ida Starr St. John, whose Camry accelerated and crashed into a school. She died before trial, but her heirs are continuing the case. Toyota had attempted to get the case thrown out, but this week a federal judge allowed it to continue.

The verdict in the Uno case may not be a strong indicator of the outcomes of future trials, because the attorneys in this case forwarded a somewhat unique legal theory.

Lawyers for other plaintiffs are set to argue that Toyotas contain electronic defects that can cause sudden acceleration. But Mardirossian, Uno’s attorney, claimed that the car’s lack of a brake override system was responsible for his client’s death.

That fail-safe, designed to prevent a car from accelerating if the brake is depressed, was adopted by many auto manufacturers in the early 2000s, but Toyota didn’t start using it until 2010.

Toyota’s lawyers countered that the safety feature would not have saved Uno because, they alleged, she mistook the accelerator for the brake. What’s more, they argued that brake override was not – and still is not – required under federal vehicle safety standards.

Belo, meanwhile, was driving a vehicle that smashed into Uno’s Camry. The impact caused Uno’s foot to become trapped on the accelerator pedal, leading the car to take off at high speed, ultimately crashing into a tree and a utility pole. The jury blamed that crash on Uno’s death.


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