MADISON, Wis. — The Oklahoma jury verdict in Toyota's sudden acceleration case, in which the automaker was found liable for the first time since it started recalling millions of vehicles in 2009, could turn the tide for hundreds of cases still waiting for trial in multidistrict litigation (MDL) in the federal court in Santa Ana, Calif.
Bookout v. Toyota is noteworthy because this is the first time a real jury heard the case and delivered a verdict. More importantly, the case is significant, not because of the verdict, but because the plaintiffs' lawyers went to trial alleging a software defect contributed to unintended acceleration.
Calling the Oklahoma case an outlier, as has been suggested by some of Toyota's defenders, is probably premature.
"I think this [verdict] will give momentum" to many other personal injury and wrongful death cases waiting for trial, Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, told us. However, "a number of additional jury trials" will have to take place before we can determine what the Oklahoma case means and before we might see a broader settlement by Toyota.
Numerous outside experts claimed in the past that the sudden acceleration events could be caused by an electronic defect in Toyota vehicles. But for a long time, no evidence was made public to prove that theory conclusively. The Oklahoma verdict has shown a way to break the complex software issue in the electronic throttle system and explain it to a jury, thus establishing it as a central issue for a number of cases in which plaintiffs have said floor mats and sticky pedals can't explain their accidents.
A defect in the Toyota electronic throttle system has become the focus of arguments by plaintiffs' attorneys in the cases in the multidistrict litigation.
Toyota won many unintended acceleration cases over the last few years. It successfully blamed the problems on driver error, faulty floor mats, or stuck accelerator pedals. In parallel, however, it settled other cases.
In cases in which the plaintiffs' attorneys submitted a full report on a flaw in the vehicle's electronic throttle control system, a pattern emerged: Toyota opted to settle before the case went to trial.
The first settlements came in December 2012, when Toyota agreed to pay more than $1 billion to resolve hundreds of lawsuits claiming economic losses vehicle owners suffered as a result of the recall. However, that settlement did not resolve hundreds more lawsuits involving wrongful death and injury.
The first Toyota settlement in one of those cases came early in January in Van Alfen v. Toyota Motor Corp., No. 2:11-8120. That case, scheduled for trial in February, would have been the first personal injury case in the multidistrict litigation to go to trial. It would serve as a bellwether for many other lawsuits that have been consolidated before US District Judge James Selna.
Paul Van Alfen was driving a Toyota Camry on Interstate 80 near Wendover, Utah, on Nov. 5, 2010, when it suddenly accelerated. Skid marks showed that Van Alfen tried to stop the vehicle as it exited I-80, according to police. The car went through a stop sign at the bottom of the ramp and through an intersection before hitting a wall. Van Alfen and his son's fiancee, Charlene Jones Lloyd, were killed. Van Alfen's wife and son were injured.
EE Times has confirmed with Michael Barr, CTO of Barr Group, who served as an expert witness in the Oklahoma trial, that he had done a software analysis on the Toyota vehicle in both the economic loss and Van Alfen cases.
The trial of another unintended acceleration case (Estate of Ida Starr St. John v. Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. et al., No. 8:10-cv-01460), also part of the multidistrict litigation, had been scheduled to begin Tuesday in an Orange County, Calif., courtroom. However, that trial has been postponed until March. The Associated Press reported on Friday that US District Judge James Selna postponed the trial because of "court congestion."
Ida Starr St. John, 83 at the time of her accident, was driving a 2005 Toyota Camry in April 2009 when it suddenly accelerated on to the grounds of a Georgia elementary school. The vehicle crashed into the school's gymnasium. No children were injured, but the accident allegedly fractured several of St. John's vertebrae and left her with other injuries.