Our law firm tried the first sudden acceleration lawsuit last month against Toyota involving the Camry’s electronic throttle control system. An Oklahoma City jury returned a multi-million dollar verdict after a three-week trial in favor of Jean Bookout and the family of Barbara Schwarz. Mrs. Bookout was seriously injured and Barbara Schwarz was killed when the Bookout’s 2005 Toyota Camry surged out of control and crashed. Mrs. Bookout and the Schwarz estate sued Toyota Motor Corp. and Toyota Motor Sales in an Oklahoma state court. Defects in the car’s electronic throttle control system (ETCS) were directly responsible for the Camry’s sudden acceleration and resulting crash.
We proved at trial that the software that controlled the ETCS was defectively designed and failed to conform to industry standards. Moreover, the jury was convinced that Toyota was fully aware of problems with the system, but concealed them from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the public and its customers. After the introduction of the ETCS in 2001, NHTSA put Toyota on notice of a 400 percent increase by 2004 of unintended acceleration (UA) claims involving the Camry. In searching its own database, when using the term “surge,” Toyota found 60,000 claims. But in reporting to NHTSA, Toyota removed the search term “surge” and only used the term “mat,” which resulted in only 124 claims being reported to the government agency. This was a deliberate move on Toyota’s part and was designed to hide a known defect.
Internal emails showed that Toyota employees worked extremely hard to “coach” NHTSA to use Toyota’s language when completing unintended acceleration investigations. Toyota contained the escalating UA claims by convincing NHTSA that the claims were caused by loose all-weather floor mats or a sticky pedal defect related to pedals provided by one supplier. James Lentz, president of Toyota’s U.S. based company, told Congress in 2010 that floor mats and sticky pedals were not related to 70 percent of the unintended acceleration claims. In its investigation, Congress also determined that floor mat recalls and sticky pedal recalls only addressed 16 percent of the UA claims. Although NASA investigated Toyota’s software, Toyota withheld certain important software source code from NASA and misrepresented the existence of vital memory protection characteristics of the Camry throttle control system.
Toyota denied that the ETCS was defective and argued that Mrs. Bookout accidentally pressed the accelerator instead of the brake pedal. But Toyota could never explain why the Bookout vehicle left a 150-foot skid mark from a locked right rear tire prior to impact. Mrs. Bookout had first applied the service brakes and then pulled the parking brake, but she couldn’t stop the car. Toyota’s own litigation testing proved the vehicle should have stopped before its impact with a dirt bank if everything was functioning properly.
The jury found the Toyota software defective and answered a question on the verdict form finding that Toyota acted in “reckless disregard of the rights” of Plaintiffs. The software in the Toyota Camry that controlled the ETCS was poorly designed and did not conform to industry standards. This was the first personal injury and wrongful death case to go to trial that blamed the Toyota UA problems on electronic throttle control defects.
Toyota’s conduct from the time the ETCS was designed has been shameful. This jury had the courage to let Toyota and the public know that Toyota was reckless and that the automaker had covered up a known defect in the ETCS. Hopefully, Toyota will recall all of their questionable vehicles and install a computer system in its vehicles that will be safe.
The jury returned a landmark verdict for the Plaintiffs in the first phase of the trial, and we were all was set to proceed to the second phase to determine the amount of punitive damages to be awarded. But after the compensatory damages verdict, Toyota’s lawyers approached us and requested a settlement. We were able to resolve the entire case for a confidential amount for both Mrs. Bookout and the Schwarz estate.
Safety advocates have long contended that the UA problem is related to a defect in Toyota’s electronic throttle control software. Our firm was one of the first in the country to file a lawsuit against Toyota alleging that sudden unintended acceleration caused a personal injury and wrongful death. We were the first to take Toyota to trial on that issue. Hopefully, this result will cause Toyota to make safety a real priority in the design and manufacturing of vehicles.
Judge Patricia G. Parrish presided over the three-week trial. The following lawyers from our firm tried this landmark case: Jere L. Beasley, Cole Portis, Graham Esdale and Ben Baker. Larry Tawwater of The Tawwater Law Firm in Oklahoma City, and Paul Martin from Ponca City, Okla., were also involved with us in this extremely important case.
Interestingly, after the judge announced to the jury that the case had been settled, the jurors asked if they could stay around and discuss the trial. For more than two hours, Judge Parrish, the 12 jurors and our lawyers had a very good discussion about the case. It was obvious that this jury was ready to punish Toyota for its conduct and cover-up. We all learned a great deal by listening to the jurors’ assessment of the case.