Toyota North America CEO Can’t Avoid Testifying at Trial

Toyota Motor Corp. lost a bid to keep its North America region’s chief executive officer from taking the witness stand in the first trial over a fatal crash blamed on sudden acceleration.

California Superior Court Judge Lee Smalley Edmon in Los Angeles today said James Lentz may be called to testify in person over objections from company lawyers, who argued that previously made video depositions of Lentz should suffice.

“The parties have identified certain testimony he gave in depositions and everyone agrees is relevant and can be used in this case,” Edmon said. She said the video recording was for pretrial evidence-sharing “purposes only” and that “there’s no question there is a difference ‘‘between playing a video-taped deposition and testimony in person.’’

The jury trial is over a crash involving Noriko Uno, 66, who died when her Camry sped out of control and crashed into a tree after it was hit by a car that ran a stop sign in Upland, California.

Toyota, based in Toyota City, Japan, settled economic-loss claims by U.S. drivers after the recall of more than 10 million cars worldwide in 2009 and 2010. Lawyers for drivers valued the settlement at $1.63 billion. The recall followed complaints of sudden, unintended acceleration, including stuck accelerator pedals and floor mats that would shift out of position and get wedged under the gas pedal.

Floor Mats

Uno’s 2006 Camry wasn’t part of the 2009 and 2010 Toyota recalls for floor mats and gas pedal modifications, when Toyota also installed brake override system software and began making it standard.

Plaintiffs have argued that Toyota should have installed an inexpensive brake override system in Uno’s car that could have stopped the vehicle. Toyota has argued that driver error is responsible for that crash and others.

Anne O. Hanna, an attorney representing Toyota, argued there was no need for Lentz to appear in court.

‘‘It’s an enormous waste of a CEO’s time and a disruption,” she said, arguing that “if he’s going to be hauled into court in every case, it seems like it’s all for naught.”

Garo Mardirossian, attorney representing the Uno family, told Edmon that he would call Lentz sometime in the next seven court days, when the plaintiffs expect to conclude their side of the case.

Carly Schaffner, a spokeswoman for Toyota, declined to immediately comment on the judge’s ruling.

Toyota re-issued a statement it put out on the opening day of the trial.

‘Our Sympathies’

“Our sympathies go out to the family and friends of Noriko Uno,” according to the company’s statement. “Toyota is committed to providing its customers with safe and reliable vehicles, including the 2006 Camry driven by Mrs. Uno, which was equipped with a state-of-the-art braking system and has earned top safety and quality honors. We are confident the evidence will show that a brake override system would not have prevented this accident and that there was no defect in Mrs. Uno’s vehicle.”

The case is part of In re Toyota Motor Cases, JCCP4621, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County (Los Angeles).

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.