Toyota hit with $3 million verdict in unintended acceleration case

Posted at 10:44 AM, Oct 25, 2013
and last updated 2013-10-25 12:44:51-04

By Chris Isidore

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — An Oklahoma state jury has found Toyota at fault in a 2007 crash caused by unintended acceleration that killed a passenger and injured the driver.

The Oklahoma City jury awarded $1.5 million each to the injured woman and the survivors of the woman who was killed. This is first verdict against Toyota in an unintended acceleration case.

The jury also found Toyota guilty of “reckless disregard” for the public’s safety. It will now consider whether Toyota must pay additional punitive damages to the victims. Because the jury is still considering the case, the judge has imposed a gag order on lawyers for both sides. Toyota also had no comment.

Toyota has already agreed to pay $1.1 billion to settle a class-action suit by car owners who saw the resale value of their cars decline. A little more than half of the settlement went towards installing a “brake override” system in affected vehicles. But that settlement does not cover cases in which personal injury or death occurred. According to financial filings, the automaker still faces more than 700 unintended acceleration cases.

Incidents of unintended acceleration were a major problem for Toyota back in 2010, forcing it to temporarily halt both production and sales of eight of its models, and to recall 2.3 million vehicles. The recall caused significant damage to Toyota’s reputation for vehicle quality and safety, and hurt its market share even after it resumed selling the recalled models. It eventually paid more than $66 million to U.S. safety regulators in four separate fines after an intensive 10 month federal investigation into the problem. Authorities found no fault with the automaker’s electronic throttle control systems, but they did conclude Toyota failed to report in a timely manner problems with floor mats that held down the accelerator pedal, as well as faulty gas pedals that got stuck.

The Japanese carmaker has started to recover some of its lost market share, and recaptured its title as the world’s top automaker in 2012. But Thursday’s verdict is an unwanted reminder of its recent problems.

The crash involved Jean Bookout, who was driving the 2005 Camry, and her passenger Barbara Schwarz. They were driving near Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma when the car started to accelerate. Bookout, who was 76 at the time of the accident, said she not only used the brake but the emergency brake to try to stop the car. Toyota lawyers in the case argued that Bookout must have hit the gas rather than the brake. But the plaintiff’s attorneys argued that there were 150 feet of skid marks at the scene of the accident.

The plaintiff’s attorneys argued the accident was cause by defects in Toyota’s electronic throttle control system, specifically in the embedded computer system. While Toyota cited the federal probe that found no fault with the electronic control system, the jury was not convinced.

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