In 2009, Toyota began recalling millions of vehicles following numerous reports of sudden, unintended acceleration problems. Not surprisingly, hundreds of lawsuits were filed against Toyota by drivers of the recalled vehicles. Toyota agreed to a $1 billion dollar settlement to resolve lawsuits seeking economic losses attributable to the recall, but has declined to enter any settlement agreements with plaintiffs who have filed suits claiming damages for injury or wrongful death. That is changing following a $3 million jury verdict in Oklahoma.
Prior to the Oklahoma case, Toyota won all of the unintended acceleration cases that proceeded to trial. In those cases, Toyota consistently maintained that its vehicles’ designs were not flawed, and, instead, blamed the unintended accelerations on the drivers, stuck accelerators, or floor mats that trapped the gas pedal.
Toyota’s wave of victories in these suits ended when an injured driver and the family of a deceased passenger filed an unintended acceleration suit against Toyota when the driver’s 2005 Camry accelerated through an intersection and crashed into an embankment. The plaintiffs claimed that the Camry’s software connected to the electronic throttle-control system was the cause of the unintended acceleration. Toyota’s lawyers defended arguing that the driver pumped the gas pedal instead of the brakes. The Oklahoma jury was not persuaded by Toyota and awarded a combined $3 million in damages to the plaintiffs.
Those who have been following the Toyota litigation find this verdict to be significant for several reasons. For one, no other plaintiffs had ever claimed that the acceleration was due to Toyota’s electronics. This novel theory is noteworthy because Toyota had never recalled any of its vehicles for problems related to its onboard electronics. This new theory of liability also has garnered the attention experts in electronic source coding and others within the industry. The verdict is also significant due to the size of the verdict rendered in such a conservative jurisdiction.
Since the verdict, Toyota has indicated its willingness to enter into an intensive settlement process. Some maintain that the Oklahoma verdict was the likely impetus in getting Toyota to the negotiating table.