This is the next of a series of columns on how the law can impact your life. Each month we will focus on various aspects of the law relating to personal injuries, those that happen both on-the-job and otherwise, including mishaps which occur in driving vehicles, using products and receiving medical care. The column will also respond to legal questions relating to personal injury that are sent to us.
Healy Scanlon Law Firm is comprised of eight trial attorneys, two of whom are from Ireland. We are located downtown at 111 West Washington Street, Suite 1425, Chicago, Illinois 60602 (312-226-4236). www.HealyLawFirm.com. The firm concentrates in the representation of injured victims of all types of accidents.
Readers are encouraged to call or write with questions concerning personal injury law.
For over two years, Toyota Motor Company has been featured prominently in news reports concerning accidents, injuries and even deaths caused by sudden and unexplained acceleration occurring in certain model Toyotas. Now, some of those claims are coming to trial in courts throughout the country.
After initially admitting that problems with the gas pedals caused some cars to accelerate when drivers did not intend, issuing three recalls, and actually settling one case, Toyota has now begun to defend vigorously these claims. It appears that the defense strategy is to simply blame the driver.
The recalls began in 2009 when Toyota received reports of unintended acceleration. The first recall, in November 2009, was to correct a problem with an out-of-place front driver’s side floor mat in the foot pedal well. Toyota claimed that the floor mats were causing the accelerator pedal to become entrapped, which, in turn, resulted in unexpected acceleration.
However, the same problems continued after the floor mats were recalled. Toyota continued to receive reports of unintended acceleration by Toyota drivers. After several of these crashes were found not to have been caused by the floor mat, Toyota issued a second recall in January 2010. This time, the defect was identified as a possible mechanical sticking of the accelerator pedal causing unintended acceleration. The next month, in February 2010, Toyota issued a third recall for its hybrid anti-lock braking software.
According to Toyota, by the end of January 2010, the recalls affected over 9 million vehicles worldwide, including some related Lexus models. As of that time, 37 deaths were alleged to have resulted from the sudden acceleration problem. That number has increased in the last two years.
In February 2011, Toyota recalled an additional 2 million vehicles for gas pedals that became trapped on floor hardware. Today, Toyota is facing over 300 lawsuits for injuries and deaths allegedly caused by unintended acceleration in 2009 and 2010.
Some of these cases are now moving closer and closer to trial. As they do, the plaintiffs’ theories of liability and Toyota’s theories of defense have become clearer. The plaintiffs in these cases allege that certain Toyota vehicles were defective, and that Toyota had the technology to implement a brake override system as a safety solution for the sudden acceleration problems, but chose not to do so. In a departure from its earlier willingness to settle these types of claims, Toyota now argues that the actions of the driver error were the reasons for sudden acceleration in many cases.
One such case, filed in the U.S. District Court in California, was brought by the family of a Utah man who crashed into a stone wall after exiting interstate 80. The man and his soon-to-be daughter-in-law died as a result of the crash. The man’s wife and son reported to police that the man had tried to apply his brakes but could not. Police identified skid marks leading up to the scene of the crash. This evidence would indicate that the plaintiff was attempting to brake while the car was accelerating, but was unable to do so.
Toyota denies that the lack of a brake override system was a cause of the accident, and claims that any injuries to the plaintiffs in that case “were caused in whole or in part” by the driver’s actions. In that case, Toyota intends to rely on evidence from the car’s black box recorders that the driver never hit the brakes. However, the information in the black box recorder is limited to only a few seconds before a crash. The case is set to be tried in February 2013.
Toyota’s most recent position on this matter stands in contrast to the position Toyota took when the scope of the recall appeared more limited. In September 2010, Toyota paid $10 million to settle the case of one California family. In that case, an off-duty police officer crashed into a ravine near San Diego, killing the officer, his wife, 13 year-old daughter, and brother. Attempts to keep the amount of the settlement confidential were rejected by a California Superior Court judge. Toyota claims that the California settlement was not an admission of liability to be used against it in future cases. Instead, Toyota now intends to defend many of these claims on theories revolving around driver error.
At Healy Scanlon Law Firm, we have represented clients injured by dangerous consumer products, and have investigated several claims regarding sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Product liability litigation encourages corporations to act in a responsible manner. As the problems with Toyota vehicles indicate, while progress in automotive safety has been made, there still remains on our roads, many vehicles with dangerous defects. If you or a loved one has been injured by a defective product, automotive, drugs or other types of consumer products, you should seek legal advice.
We hope that the coming year will be a safe one for you and your family.
BY: MARTIN HEALY, JR.
PATRICK C. ANDERSON