Jury Soon to Decide Bellwether Case Against Toyota
From The National Law Journal:
Noriko Uno did everything she could to stop her 2006 Camry. She steered away from oncoming traffic and slammed the brakes. When her foot got stuck under the brake pedal, she engaged the emergency brake.
"She was doing the best she could to control the runaway rocket she was strapped to," attorney Garo Mardirossian told a Los Angeles jury on Monday during closing arguments against Toyota Motor Corp.
But Uno died after her car slammed into two telephone poles and eventually collided with a pepper tree. Mardirossian represents Uno’s husband and son, whose case against Toyota is the subject of the opening bellwether trial over sudden acceleration defects.
Toyota’s attorney, Vincent Galvin, managing partner of the San Jose, Calif., office of Bowman and Brooke, insisted that the plaintiffs hadn’t proved their case, which centers on whether Uno's foot got stuck under the brake pedal, causing the car to lose control.
"That's the basis of their case," he said. "The stuck foot theory the plaintiffs have doesn't cause acceleration the way the plaintiffs claim."
Hundreds of similar lawsuits against Toyota are pending in Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court before Judge Lee Smalley Edmon, who is overseeing the consolidated litigation in California state court cases. A bellwether is defined as a case selected, usually by mutual agreement of both parties, to go to trial ahead of similar cases because the facts best represent the mass tort litigation as a whole. That means a verdict in the case could serve as a barometer for the rest of the California cases, and for hundreds of personal injury or wrongful death cases across the nation.
Hundreds more cases have been coordinated in multidistrict litigation before U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana, Calif., who is scheduled to hear the first trial in that proceeding on November 5.
Additional trials are scheduled this year in state courts in Oklahoma, where the first trial was scheduled to begin on October 7, and in Michigan, beginning on November 5.
Most of the litigation has alleged defects with the electronic throttle control system, not the accelerator pedals or floor mats that led to the recall of nearly 10 million vehicles.
Uno’s survivors, however, have centered on the lack of a brake override safety system that would have automatically put the engine into idle, possibly saving her life. Mardirossian seeks $20 million in damages.
He emphasized to jurors that photos taken soon after the accident showed that the emergency brake in Uno’s car had been depressed. He criticized Toyota’s experts, claiming they were paid $1.5 million for their testimony, and tried to deflect an allegation that Uno, who was diabetic, was responsible for the crash.
"She never had an episode of hypoglycemia in her life, and yet they want to blame her," Mardirossian said.
After hearing two months of testimony, a jury now will decides who is responsible for the 2009 accident and, ultimately, Uno’s death.
Galvin told the jury that the crash caused so much damage that Uno's foot got stuck under the pedal upon impact, not half a mile up the road. He also defended the vehicle's brakes, which he claims Uno didn't use.
"There's no claim that this brake system is defective at all," he said. "If she had used the brakes, the vehicle would have stopped."
The case also involves claims against Olga Bello, 86, whose 2003 Lexus struck Uno’s vehicle minutes before it began racing down a residential road in Upland, Calif.