Toyota Must Pay $3 Million for Oklahoma Crash, Jury Says

Toyota Motor Corp. must pay $3 million in a lawsuit claiming a defect in a Camry caused the vehicle to suddenly accelerate, leading to an accident that left one woman dead and another injured, an Oklahoma jury said.

The jury awarded $1.5 million for each claim and will consider punitive damages today, Graham Esdale, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an e-mail. The jury found the Camry’s electronic system was defective and Toyota acted with “reckless” disregard, Esdale said.

“Per the court’s instructions, we cannot comment on the ruling pending the ongoing deliberations by the jury,” Carly Schaffner, a spokeswoman for the Toyota City, Japan-based automaker, said in a statement after yesterday’s verdict.

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 any defects in Bookout’s Camry. The Oklahoma City state court jury rejected Toyota’s defense, handing the automaker its first loss in a sudden acceleration case.

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

‘Serious Problem’

“Toyota had known since as far back as 2004 that they had a serious problem with sudden acceleration,” Beasley said in his opening statement Oct. 8 at the start of trial. “We’re talking about an automobile accident that occurred not because of anything the driver did or did not do.”

There was no defect in the vehicle that would have caused the accident, J. Randolph Bibb, an attorney for Toyota, told the jury in his opening statement.

“After taking the wrong exit toward an unfamiliar road, 76-year-old Jean Bookout made a mistake in the operation of her 2005 Camry,” Bibb said. He suggested that she may have pressed the accelerator instead of the brake as she left the highway.

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 may cause floor mats to jam accelerator pedals. The company later recalled vehicles over defects involving the pedals themselves.

Earlier Settlement

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

Floor Mats

Many of the death and injury lawsuits, including Bookout’s, 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 claim 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 claim 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).

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