Toyota Settles Oklahoma Acceleration Case After Verdict

Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) settled a lawsuit that brought a $3 million jury verdict over a claim that a defect in a Camry made the vehicle suddenly accelerate and led to an accident that left one woman dead and another injured.

An Oklahoma City jury yesterday awarded $1.5 million for each claim and was scheduled to consider punitive damages today. The terms of the settlement are confidential, plaintiffs’ attorney Cole Portis said today in a statement.

The lawsuit is one of several hundred filed against Toyota in state and federal courts in the U.S. contending that the company’s vehicles can spontaneously accelerate. It’s the first test of a claim that a flaw in the vehicles’ electronic throttle-control system is at fault.

“We are fully convinced that Toyota’s conduct from the time the electronic throttle control system was designed has been shameful,” Portis said. “Hopefully, Toyota will recall all of their questionable vehicles and install a computer that will be safe.”

The 2005 Camry driven by Jean Bookout, then 76, sped out of control as she was exiting from an Oklahoma highway in September 2007, according to her lawyer Jere L. Beasley. Bookout couldn’t stop the car and it crashed, injuring her and killing her passenger and friend, Barbara Schwarz, 70, he said.

Toyota denied there were defects in Bookout’s Camry. The state court jury rejected Toyota’s defense, handing the automaker its first loss in a sudden-acceleration case.

Company Statement

“While we strongly disagree with the verdict, we are satisfied that the parties reached a mutually acceptable agreement to settle this case,” Carly Schaffner, a spokeswoman for the Toyota City, Japan-based automaker, said in a 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,” she said.

The carmaker recalled more than 10 million vehicles for problems related to unintended acceleration in 2009 and 2010, starting with a September 2009 announcement that it was recalling 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles because of a defect that might cause floor mats to jam accelerator pedals. The company later recalled vehicles over defects involving the pedals themselves.

The recalls led to lawsuits claiming that defects harmed the value of Toyota vehicles or caused accidents leading to death and injury. Toyota settled suits claiming economic losses for about $1.6 billion.

Toyota Wins

Toyota won the three sudden-acceleration claims that previously reached jury verdicts since the recalls. The defense verdicts include injury cases in New York in 2011 and in Philadelphia in June. A Los Angeles jury in October cleared Toyota of fault for the death of a 66-year-old woman.

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 is set for trial in February in state court in Michigan.

In many of the death and injury lawsuits, including Bookout’s, plaintiffs claim that loose floor mats and sticky pedals don’t explain all episodes of sudden acceleration and that the electronic throttle control system is at fault. Bookout’s vehicle, a 2005 Camry, wasn’t included in the recalls.

Lawyers suing Toyota say that reports of unintended acceleration increased after Toyota began to equip vehicles with its ETCS-i system, whereby the engine’s throttle is controlled electronically, not mechanically. Signals are sent from a sensor that detects how far the gas pedal is pressed to a computer module that opens and closes the throttle.

The lawyers claim that outside electronic signals can trigger the throttle and that the brakes can’t stop the surging car. Bookout’s lawyers also claimed her vehicle should have had a brake override system to slow her Camry.

Toyota has disputed any flaws in the electronic throttle.

The case is Bookout v. Toyota Motor Corp., CJ-2008-7969, District Court, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma (Oklahoma City).

To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit at mcfisk@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.