TOYOTA’S UNINTENDED ACCELERATION LITIGATION: BAD BRAKES OR BUST?

On August 8, 2013, a California court heard opening statements in what is being called the “unintended acceleration litigation” against Toyota.

The case arises out of an accident that took the life of a Southern California woman, when in August 2009, at nearly 100 miles per hour, her 2006 Toyota Camry took an uncontrolled path slamming into trees and poles before finally hitting another vehicle. The family has sued Toyota in a wrongful death proceeding, and intends to show the company was at fault for its defective braking system.

Specifically, the plaintiff argues that a brake override system should have been in place, i.e. a system where the accelerator is overridden when both the brake and the gas are hit at the same time. The absence of that system is particularly conspicuous given that the system was put in Toyota’s European vehicles but not in the U.S. vehicles. This is because in products liability disputes, one major legal consideration is whether there was a “reasonable alternative design” (“RAD”) at the time the product was made. If the European models contained this brake override system, then Toyota will not be able to argue the alternative design was not available; instead, they will have to argue it wouldn’t have changed anything, i.e. that it was not actually an alternative.

Thus, Toyota, for its part, has disputed the usefulness of such a system, and argues that a brake override system would not have changed the outcome. Toyota released this statement in response to the allegations: “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.”

Toyota will attempt to show that the acceleration of Mrs. Uno’s car was caused by her inadvertently stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake, leading the car to spin wildly out of control and ultimately crash at fatal speeds.
Of course, the Plaintiff is not prepared to accept this narrative. Last week, after trial had already commenced, an automotive expert for the Plaintiff testified that pedal misapplication was not a factor in Mrs. Uno’s death. Meanwhile, the attorney for the plaintiffs has stated that the last thing this Japanese family wants to do is to accuse a Japanese icon of wrongdoing; rather, the goal is to seek retribution for the life taken and the damage done to the family of the deceased.
While many of the lawsuits arising out of this particular litigation have resulted in settlements, the parties in this case have clearly reached an impasse, rendering this case as the bellwether for products liability litigation against Toyota in connection with unintended acceleration litigation allegations. Time will tell whether the Plaintiffs are successful at trial, and whether the Plaintiff will be able to show that an actually defective product was at issue.

While the law does not seek to impose penalties on manufacturers that are simply trying to advance products in a particular field, when cost-cutting measures end up taking lives that is another story entirely, and one in which a Plaintiff might very well be successful.