The first trial involving personal injury and wrongful death claims related to Toyota’s sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) problems is set for October 7th in a state court in Oklahoma City, Okla. This will be the first case to be tried involving SUA caused by electronic throttle control defects in the United States. Lawyers from our firm will try this case. We contend that the SUA was caused by a malfunction of the vehicle’s electronic throttle control system. The lack of a brake override system that would have allowed the driver to slow or stop her vehicle from speeding out of control is also a part of the Plaintiffs’ contentions in this case.
Jean Bookout was driving her 2005 Toyota Camry on September 20, 2007, when the vehicle suddenly accelerated out of control. Ms. Bookout sustained severe injuries when the sudden unintended acceleration resulted in a crash. Barbara Schwarz, a passenger in the car, who was one of Ms. Bookout’s best friends, was killed in the crash. We represent both Ms. Bookout and the Schwarz family in the case.
It’s significant that this case will be the first personal injury and wrongful death case to go to trial where there is a claim based on electronic throttle malfunction. We are making that claim in the case along with the claim involving the lack of a brake override system. The trial will also be the first where both of these claims are involved. Incidentally, our firm was one of the first in the country to file a lawsuit against Toyota alleging that SUA caused a personal injury and wrongful death.
As a background for the Oklahoma case, it might be good to do a brief review. 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 tried to blame the problem on faulty floor mats that they said trapped the accelerator pedal, and also sticky accelerator pedals. We are convinced based on our investigation that the problem is related to a defect in the vehicles’ electronic throttle control system.
There are primarily three types of ongoing cases involving Toyota and its SUA problem. Those are the 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, but now is being overseen by Judge Lee Smalley Edmon of the Los Angeles Superior Court; and the individual personal injury, product liability and wrongful death cases, some of which are part of either the MDL or the JCCP, with the rest being litigated in various state courts on an individual case basis.
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, resulting in the cases moving more quickly to resolution. Lawyers coordinate the litigation and work together on issues of science and discovery. Lawyers involved in the Toyota SUA litigation can use evidence uncovered in the MDL discovery process in individual state cases and in the JCCP cases. Judge Selna has invited Judge Mohr and Judge Edmon, and occasionally other judges, to sit at the bench with him during hearings involving significant issues.
A settlement agreement was reached in December 2012 between Plaintiffs’ lawyers and Toyota valued at $1.6 billion to settle consumer claims of economic losses stemming from the SUA problems. This settlement is awaiting final approval by Judge Selna. The Plaintiffs Steering Committee (PSC) recently asked for permission to add four lawyers to its ranks. Most of the new PSC lawyers are representing Plaintiffs in state courts. Judge Selna approved the Steering Committee’s request.
A few other lawyers involved in the litigation will join the short list of those already 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.
Graham Esdale was the first member from our firm to be granted access to the source code. Since then he has been inside the source code room in Maryland. In an effort to help with trial preparation, we asked that another of our lawyers be allowed access, and Judge Selna granted our request and approved Ben Baker for access. Our main focus at the juncture is getting ready for the case to be tried in Oklahoma. Cole Portis, Ben Baker, Graham Esdale and this writer, along with Larry Tawwater from Oklahoma City, will try this case for our clients. At press time, the Toyota trial team consisted of eight very good lawyers and their support staffs, all from different firms. We learned long ago that spending money for defense of cases by Toyota is no problem for the carmaker.