An Oklahoma City jury has found that electronic defects in a Toyota Motor Corp. vehicle caused it to accelerate out of control and crash into a wall, killing a passenger and seriously injuring the driver.
The verdict, handed down late Thursday, requires Toyota to pay a total of $3 million in compensatory damages to Jean Bookout and the family of the dead passenger, Barbara Schwarz. They were the sole occupants of a 2005 Camry that crashed in Eufaula, Okla., in September 2007.
The jury will also award punitive damages in the case, based on its finding that Toyota’s actions were in “reckless disregard” of others. Deliberations on the second set of damages will begin today.
A Toyota spokesman confirmed the verdict but had no comment.
The decision is the first in which a jury was convinced by arguments that faulty electronics – in this case those involving the Camry’s electronic throttle system – could cause a Toyota vehicle to accelerate on its own.
The automaker has denied such allegations and has successfully defended itself in court in three previous trials.
This month, Toyota was cleared of responsibility in a Los Angeles court case involving an Uplands, Calif., woman who died when her Camry accelerated to more than 100 mph before crashing.
But plaintiff attorneys in the Oklahoma case claimed that Toyota had long been aware of problems in the electronic throttle system in Camrys and did not move to correct them. As a result, they argued, Bookout, then 82 years old, could not prevent her sedan from accelerating through an intersection and crashing into an embankment.
“This certainly changes the momentum,” said Carl Tobias, a product liability expert and law professor at the University of Richmond.
The ruling “has to be a real concern for Toyota,” Tobias said. “They have maintained all along that there wasn’t a problem.”
The ruling also is noteworthy because it comes from a jury in Oklahoma, a state not known as particularly friendly to plaintiffs in such lawsuits, he said.
Tobias said it will take about a dozen rulings before a trend emerges and Toyota is ready to enter into serious settlement negotiations with other plaintiffs filing similar lawsuits.
Toyota still faces hundreds of other sudden acceleration lawsuits, many of which will probably make similar arguments. The next trial, involving a Georgia woman who accelerated into a schoolyard, is set to begin in federal court in Santa Ana, Calif., next month.
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