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Toyota wins first acceleration trial

Bloomberg

Toyota Motor Corp. was not responsible for an accident that killed a 66-year-old woman who crashed her 2006 Camry into a tree after it sped out of control on a road and into oncoming traffic, a Los Angeles jury has found.

The jury said Thursday there wasn’t a defect in the Camry that contributed to the 2009 crash, rejecting the allegation that the absence of a brake-override system in the vehicle was to blame for it speeding onto the wrong side of the road and crashing as the driver, Noriko Uno, was trying to brake.

The jury instead pinned full liability on the driver of another vehicle that had crashed into Uno’s Camry before it sped out of control. Jurors said that driver should pay $10 million in damages to Uno’s husband and son.

The Uno trial was a bellwether case for about 85 personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits in California state court that were brought against Toyota in the wake of a series of recalls in 2009 and 2010 for possible sudden, unintended acceleration-related issues, including floor mats that could get stuck under the gas pedal and sticky pedals.

The 2006 Camry wasn’t included in the Toyota recalls for unintended acceleration issues.

“We are gratified that the jury concluded the design of the 2006 Camry did not contribute to this unfortunate accident, affirming the same conclusion we reached after more than three years of careful investigation — that there was nothing wrong with the vehicle at issue in this case,” Carly Schaffner, a Toyota spokeswoman, said in a statement.

“We believe this verdict sets a significant benchmark by helping further confirm that Toyota vehicles are safe with or without brake override,” she said.

Outside California, Toyota has won both injury cases that reached jury verdicts since the recalls, including one in New York in 2011 and another in Philadelphia in June. Another trial is under way in Oklahoma City over a crash that left one woman dead and another injured.

Toyota is facing a fifth trial next month in federal court in Santa Ana, California, where roughly 200 death and injury cases are pending. Another case is set for trial in February in state court in Michigan.

In the Los Angeles case, Toyota lawyers argued that the lack of a brake-override system in the Camry wasn’t to blame for the accident because Uno hadn’t attempted to brake. They claimed Uno’s medical condition, including diabetes, caused her to experience cognitive impairment after her car was struck by the other vehicle running a stop sign.

Jeffrey Uno, her son, said in an interview he was “very happy with the verdict (about the damages to be paid by the other driver) but disappointed about the outcome with respect to Toyota.”

“I wish the best for the other cases and hope that they’ll have better luck and an outcome that will shed more light on the problems in Toyota vehicles,” Uno said.

Garo Mardirossian, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who had sought damages of $20 million, said he was happy that the Uno family won damages from the other driver.

Toyota “got away by the skin of its teeth,” he said. “We had so many missing pieces in this case — (Uno’s) dead, she couldn’t talk.”

The attorney said he has another case against Toyota involving allegations of sudden acceleration by a plaintiff who will be able to testify about it. That case “is much more straightforward,” Mardirossian said.

John Duffy, who represented the driver found liable in the accident on behalf of her insurance company, said he was “stunned” by the $10 million the jury awarded to the Uno family.

When asked if they would appeal, Duffy said, “It sure looks like we will have to.”