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SANTA ANA, Calif. — After a four-year legal battle, Toyota is entering settlement talks on hundreds of lawsuits that allege sudden unintended acceleration problems with its vehicles led to deaths and injuries.
A motion filed late Thursday in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana indicated both sides would begin an “intensive settlement process” next month.
The Japanese automaker, which has recalled millions of cars since 2009 over the issue, agreed to the negotiations to make resolving the cases more efficient, spokeswoman Carly Schaffner told The Associated Press today.
“We continue to stand behind the safety and quality of our vehicles,” she said.
Lead plaintiffs’ attorneys Elizabeth Cabraser, Todd Walburg and Mark Robinson Jr. did not return calls seeking comment.
The settlement negotiations come less than two months after an Oklahoma jury awarded a total of $3 million in damages to the injured driver of a 2005 Camry and to the family of a passenger who was killed.
The ruling was significant because Toyota had won all previous unintended acceleration cases that went to trial. It was also the first case where attorneys for plaintiffs argued that the car’s electronics — in this case the software connected to the Camry’s electronic throttle-control system — were the cause of the unintended acceleration.
At the time, legal experts said the Oklahoma verdict might cause Toyota to consider a broad settlement of the remaining cases. Until that case, Toyota had been riding the momentum from several trials where juries found it was not liable.
Toyota has blamed drivers, stuck accelerators or floor mats that trapped the gas pedal for the sudden unintended acceleration claims that led to the big recalls of Camrys and other vehicles. It has repeatedly denied its vehicles are flawed.
No recalls have been issued related to problems with onboard electronics. In the Oklahoma case, Toyota attorneys theorized that the driver mistakenly pumped the gas pedal instead of the brake when her Camry ran through an intersection and slammed into an embankment.
Sean Kane, president of Massachusetts-based Safety Research & Strategies, said the Oklahoma verdict likely moved Toyota to the negotiating table because it targeted electronics.
“Nobody did until that case and they got hammered and they got hammered in a conservative venue,” said Kane, who researches consumer safety in motor vehicles and has been closely following the Toyota litigation.
Experts in electronic source code and other industry insiders are buzzing about the verdict, he added.
“The evidence that came out in that trial has attracted global attention that is remarkable,” he said.
Toyota previously agreed to pay more than $1 billion to resolve hundreds of lawsuits claiming that owners if its cars suffered economic losses because of the recalls. But that settlement did not include those suing over wrongful death and injuries. Hundreds more of those lawsuits remain and many have been consolidated in state and federal courts in California.
Also in October, Toyota won a California state court case in which plaintiffs argued the automaker was liable for the death of a woman whose 2006 Camry crashed because the company hadn’t installed a system that could override the accelerator. The woman’s family was seeking $20 million in damages.
Toyota also won a federal case in New York in 2011.