Toyota Motor Corp. will face the first test trial in February 2013 of lawsuits combined in federal court that claim a defect causes the company’s vehicles to speed up uncontrollably, a judge said.
U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana, California, said in a “tentative order” posted on his court’s website that the first bellwether trial would be of claims by the families of two people killed in a Nov. 5, 2010, crash in Utah. Paul Van Alfen died when his 2008 Toyota Camry crashed into a wall. Passenger Charlene Lloyd died the next day.
Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, recalled millions of U.S. vehicles starting in 2009, after claims of defects and incidents involving sudden unintended acceleration. The recalls set off hundreds of economic-loss suits and claims of injuries and deaths.
“The conduct of a trial in the first quarter of 2013 will markedly advance these proceedings,” said Selna, who is overseeing most of the federal suits. “Selection of a personal injury/wrongful death case” is most likely to “meet that goal,” he said.
A bellwether case is used by the court and lawyers for both sides to test evidence and liability theories before moving on to other trials or limiting future litigation.
Selna picked the Van Alfen case from six submitted by lawyers for the company and plaintiffs.
“My overriding goal is to ensure that we try the first bellwether case in the first quarter of 2013,” Selna said today at a hearing.
Lawyers for both sides said at the hearing that they were satisfied with Selna’s choice. Van Alfen was on the list of three cases submitted by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
“The Van Alfen case is a good candidate for a first trial,” said Joel Smith, Toyota’s lawyer. “We’re fine with that.”
Van Alfen’s wife and son were injured in the 2010 crash and are suing as well. The families say the accident happened when the vehicle unexpectedly accelerated as Van Alfen pulled onto an exit ramp on I-80 near Wendover, Utah, and didn’t stop even after he slammed on the brakes.
The Camry was defective and the Toyota City, Japan-based carmaker failed to include a brake override system or device to stop inadvertent acceleration, the families maintain.
Lawsuits were combined before Selna in a multidistrict litigation for evidence-gathering and pretrial rulings.
Toyota’s recalls began in September 2009 with an announcement that 3.8 million vehicles might have a defect making floor mats jam the accelerator pedal. In January 2010, the company recalled 2.3 million vehicles to fix sticking gas pedals.
The carmaker said in February that it was recalling another 2.17 million vehicles for carpet and floor-mat flaws that could jam gas pedals.
Many of the lawsuits include claims that loose floor mats and sticky pedals don’t explain all episodes of sudden acceleration and that the electronic throttle system in Toyota vehicles is to blame.
Toyota has disputed claims of flaws in its electronic throttle control system. The Van Alfen case alleges a defect in this system left vehicles vulnerable to unintended acceleration.
In February, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said their probe of possible electronic defects found no causes for unintended acceleration other than sticking accelerator pedals and floor mats that jammed the pedals.
Toyota previously went to trial this year in federal court in Central Islip, New York, on a sudden-acceleration claim that wasn’t combined before Selna.
The jury on April 1 found no defect, rejecting the claims of a doctor who said he was injured when his 2005 Scion sped up and hit a tree. That vehicle wasn’t involved in the recalls.
“We are pleased that the initial bellwether will address plaintiffs’ central allegation of an unnamed, unproven defect in Toyota vehicles, as every claim in the MDL rests upon this pivotal technical issue,” Celeste Migliore, a Toyota spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement. “A decision on this core claim and the related causation issues will greatly speed the entire MDL.”
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