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Toyota Judge Says He May Caution Jurors About Some Witnesses

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May 30 (Bloomberg) -- The federal judge overseeing the consolidated sudden-unintended acceleration lawsuits against Toyota Motor Corp. said he may tell jurors to view testimony by some of the carmaker’s trial witnesses with caution.

U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana, California, said in a tentative ruling yesterday that he will tell jurors in the first wrongful death and personal injury case scheduled for trial that they should treat the testimony of Toyota personnel who inspected a crashed 2008 Camry without plaintiffs’ lawyers present “with greater caution than that of other witnesses.”

Lawyers for a Utah family, who sued after a November 2010 fatal accident, had asked for sanctions, including entering default judgment against Toyota. The owner of the facility where Toyota technicians inspected the car after the crash alleged that the technicians removed a piece of plastic wedged in the throttle body, according to the ruling.

“On the present record, the court cannot determine whether there is a causal relationship between the plastic piece lodged in the throttle body and the accident, or whether the piece lodged in the opening as a result, not a cause, of the crash,” the judge said. “In these circumstances, the court believes that an evidentiary sanction is appropriate, but a modest one.”

Selna heard arguments on the plaintiffs’ request today. The judge didn’t issue a final ruling at the hearing, Celeste Migliore, a spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Sales USA in Torrance, California, said in an e-mail.

Event Data Recorder

Selna also said in his tentative ruling yesterday that he may instruct the jury about Toyota’s downloading of the car’s event data recorder after the crash without consent from the family. Since there is no evidence the data was altered or corrupted, there was no need to exclude the evidence, according to the tentative ruling.

“This motion by plaintiffs’ counsel should be seen for what it is: a baseless and desperate effort to dismiss clear and convincing evidence that devastates their case,” Migliore said in a statement. “This transparent attempt to raise doubts about the vehicle inspection process by fabricating a continuous stream of demonstrably false and misleading theories is entirely without merit.”

The case is scheduled for trial Feb. 19. It covers the claims of the families of two people killed in the crash. Their Camry struck a rock wall when it exited the freeway and failed to stop. The driver, Paul Van Alfen, and a passenger, Charlene Lloyd, his son’s fiancee, died.

Van Alfen’s wife and son were injured in the 2010 crash. The families have said the accident happened when the vehicle unexpectedly accelerated and didn’t stop even after the driver slammed on the brakes.

The cases are combined as In re Toyota Motor Corp. Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation, 8:10-ml-02151, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Santa Ana).

To contact the reporter on this story: Edvard Pettersson in Los Angeles at epettersson@bloomberg.net.

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

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