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Toyota Found Not at Fault in Acceleration-Related Death

Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) wasn’t 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 in the wrong direction, a California jury said.

A Los Angeles jury yesterday found that 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 the car speeding into oncoming traffic and crashing while 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 car before the Camry sped out of control. Jurors said the other 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 the Toyota City, Japan-based carmaker 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.

‘Unfortunate Accident’

“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.”

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. A 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 about 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 didn’t try to brake. 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, Toyota said.

Happy, Disappointed

Jeffrey Uno, Noriko Uno’s son, said in an interview he was “very happy with the verdict 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 sought damages of $20 million, 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 -- the woman’s dead, she couldn’t talk,” Mardirossian said.

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 straight-forward,” he said.

John Duffy, who represented the driver found liable in the accident on behalf of her insurance company, said he was ``stunned'' by the amount the jury awarded to the Unos. When asked if they would appeal, Duffy said, ``It sure looks like we will have to.''

The cases are In re Toyota Motor Cases, JCCP4621, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County (Los Angeles).

To contact the reporters on this story: Edvard Pettersson in Federal court in Los Angeles at epettersson@bloomberg.net; Valerie Reitman in state court in Los Angeles at valeriereitman@yahoo.com

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