Verdict Motivates Toyota to Settle Sudden-Acceleration Case
From The National Law Journal:
Toyota Motor Corp. on Friday agreed to settle allegations of sudden acceleration defects following a $3 million verdict in a case in which a jury that was scheduled to determine punitive damages later that day.
On Thursday, Toyota lost the second major verdict over sudden acceleration defects when an Oklahoma state jury found in favor of an injured driver and the family of a passenger who was killed when their 2005 Camry accelerated at a highway exit ramp. The jury gave $1.5 million to each plaintiff. The panel was poised to take up punitive damages but Toyota settled the case before that. The terms were confidential.
“While we strongly disagree with the verdict, we are satisfied that the parties reached a mutually acceptable agreement to settle this case,” Toyota spokeswoman Carly Schaffner wrote in an emailed statement. “We remain committed to providing our customers with safe and reliable vehicles, and we will continue to defend our products vigorously at trial in other legal venues.”
The case, in Oklahoma County, Okla., District Court, was the first to present evidence that defects in the electronic throttle control system were responsible for sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles of Montgomery, Ala., was the lead plaintiffs’ team.
“We are fully convinced that Toyota's conduct from the time the electronic throttle control system (ETCS) was designed has been shameful,” Beasley Allen shareholder J. Cole Portis said in a prepared statement. “We appreciate that the jury had the courage to let Toyota and the public know that Toyota was reckless. Hopefully, Toyota will recall all of their questionable vehicles and install a computer that will be safe.”
Portis, who heads the firm’s product liability and personal injury section, told The National Law Journal that the plaintiffs’ team had sought between $3 million to $6 million for the driver and $5 million to $8 million for the family of the deceased passenger. Under Oklahoma law, punitive damages would have been capped at $3 million—the amount of the compensatory damage award, he said.
But founding shareholder Jere Beasley said jurors, unaware of that statute, had been prepared to grant at least $15 million in punitive damages. His team met with jurors this morning.
“They saw it as a monumental case, a landmark case, and one that would have an effect on Toyota going down the road in the future,” he said. “Their intent was to come back this morning and award a very large punitive award.”
A jury in Los Angeles found on October 10 that Toyota’s failure to install a brake override system did not contribute to an accident that killed Noriko Uno in 2009. That jury issued a $10 million verdict against the driver of another vehicle that hit Uno’s 2006 Camry, which accelerated down a residential street and into a tree.
The Oklahoma case was filed by Jean Bookout, who suffered internal bleeding and a broken ankle in the crash six years ago. Her friend, Barbara Schwartz, who was in the front seat, was killed. Trial began earlier this month.
The case is an outlier in that it is not part of a coordinated proceeding, and lawyers have not selected it as a bellwether trial, defined as one whose outcome could guide the resolution of other cases against Toyota.
But the trial was the second significant one against Toyota this year. Toyota faces a third trial—the first bellwether in the multidistrict litigation pending in federal court in Santa Ana, Calif.—on November 5.