Beasley Allen lawyers to try first Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration case tied to electronic malfunction

posted on:
August 6, 2013

author:
Kurt Niland, Wendi Lewis

The first trial for a personal injury and wrongful death claim related to Toyota sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) resulting from electronic throttle control defects is set for Oct. 7 in the District Court for Oklahoma County, in Oklahoma City, Okla., under Judge Patricia G. Parrish. The case is Bookout / Schwarz v. Toyota. This is the first case set for trial in the United States in which the Plaintiffs allege the SUA was caused by a malfunction of the vehicle’s electronic throttle control system, as well as the lack of a brake override system that would have allowed the driver to slow or stop her vehicle from speeding out of control. The Bookout and Schwarz families are being represented by Beasley Allen lawyer Graham Esdale.

Jean Bookout was driving her 2005 Toyota Camry on Sept. 20, 2007, when she says the vehicle suddenly accelerated out of control. She sustained severe injuries when the sudden unintended acceleration resulted in a crash. Her passenger, who was one of her best friends, Barbara Schwarz, was killed in the crash.

“This case, as it stands now, will be the first personal injury and wrongful death case to go to trial where there’s an allegation of electronic throttle malfunction,” said Beasley Allen Shareholder Graham Esdale. “We are making that claim along with the lack of a brake override claim. We are the first case scheduled to go to trial on both of these issues.”

Esdale was one of the first attorneys in the country to file a lawsuit against Toyota alleging that SUA caused a personal injury and wrongful death.

Beginning in 2008, Toyota recalled millions of vehicles worldwide when drivers began reporting vehicles would suddenly speed out of control and they were unable to slow down or stop. This resulted in numerous crashes resulting in serious injury and deaths. Toyota blamed the problem on faulty floor mats that they said trapped the accelerator pedal, and sticky accelerator pedals. Plaintiffs lawyers contend the problem is related to a defect in the vehicles’ electronic throttle control system.

There are primarily three types of cases ongoing in relation to Toyota SUA. There is Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) consolidated under U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana, Calif.; a Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding (JCCP) for California State cases, which was under the direction of Judge Anthony Mohr and is now being overseen by Judge Lee Smalley Edmon of the Los Angeles Superior Court; and individual personal injury, product liability and wrongful death cases, some of which are part of the MDL or the JCCP and others that are being litigated in various state courts.

Consolidating the cases into a multidistrict litigation (MDL) allows the committee overseeing the process to put more pressure and focus on moving the case forward, moving cases more quickly to resolution. Lawyers will coordinate the litigation and work together on issues of science and discovery. Lawyers involved in Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration litigation may use evidence uncovered in the MDL discovery process in individual state cases and JCCP cases. Judge Selna has invited Judge Mohr and Judge Edmon, and occasionally other judges, to sit at the bench with him during significant hearings.

A settlement agreement was reached in December 2012 between Plaintiffs’ lawyers and Toyota for an estimated $1.6 billion to settle consumer claims of economic losses stemming from the sudden acceleration problem. It is pending final approval by Judge Selna. A hearing on the settlement has been set for July 19.

The Plaintiffs Steering Committee (PSC) recently asked for permission to add four attorneys to its ranks. Most of the new PSC attorneys are representing plaintiffs in state courts. Judge Selna approved the Steering Committee’s request to add four more attorneys.

A few other lawyers involved in the litigation will join the short list of those approved to access the automaker’s highly secretive source code software, which many believe could explain the cause of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Toyota keeps the source code under tight surveillance at a facility in Columbia, Md.

Toyota’s lawyers say the code holds sensitive trade secrets that must be kept out of the hands of competitors. The PSC originally asked that seven firms be granted access to the source code. But Judge Selna restricted access to one individual from each of those firms in order to protect the code and increase accountability.

Beasley Allen’s Graham Esdale was the first member of the firm to be granted access to the source code, and has been inside the source code room in Maryland. In an effort to help with trial preparation, the firm asked that another of its lawyers be allowed access, and Judge Selna granted Beasley Allen Shareholder Benjamin Baker access.

Toyota agreed to grant access to four individuals altogether.

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