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Verdict in Toyota wrongful death case could impact other suits

A jury decision in Southern California has reverberated across the country to Florida for those involved in litigation against Toyota Motor Corporation. The automaker has been plagued by cases of accidents reportedly caused by unintended acceleration and other defects in its vehicles. The jury in the Southern California wrongful death case found that Toyota was not liable for the 2009 death of a 66-year-old driver.

This was the first "bellwether" state court case against the auto manufacturer involving the issues that received a good deal of notoriety a few years back as reports surfaced of vehicles suddenly speeding out of control. Although the automaker has variously blamed driver error, shifting floor mats and stuck accelerators, it still recalled millions of their vehicles around the world and has paid $1 billion to settle multiple federal lawsuits. There are other cases pending in both federal and state courts.

Reuters reported that the victim was driving a 2006 Toyota Camry when she was hit by another driver. The victim's car, according to the suit, accelerated out of control and hit a tree, killing the driver. The family, who was seeking $20 million in damages, faulted Toyota for not having a brake override system in the car.

Toyota contended that the victim probably was trying to hit the brake, but stepped on the accelerator instead. Attorneys for the car manufacturer argued that a brake override system would not have helped in that situation.

Jurors, however, blamed neither Toyota nor the victim. They determined that the other driver was responsible for the accident, because she ran a stop sign before hitting the Camry. That driver, who is now 90 years old, has been ordered to pay $10 million to the victim's family.

Not surprisingly, Toyota sees this verdict as validation of the safety of its vehicles and believes it will impact other cases pending against it. The plaintiffs' attorney in this case, however, sees it differently, stressing the dangers that arise without a brake override system. He said he thinks that future plaintiffs will be able to win against Toyota.

Whether this verdict is a predictor of the outcome of those cases remains to be seen. Every situation is different, and judges and juries can react very differently when hearing the same set of facts. As more litigation moves forward, both plaintiffs' attorneys and Toyota's will learn from preceding cases.

Source: NBC Los Angeles, "Toyota Cleared, Other Driver Blamed Wrongful Death Lawsuit" No author given, Oct. 11, 2013

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