Toyota Products Liability Lawsuits Regarding Sudden Acceleration

An automobile accident involving a Lexus (subsidiary of Toyota) vehicle resulted in the deaths of four people in California on August 28, 2009. Mark Saylor took his car into the Bob Baker Lexus dealer in El Cajon, CA to have it serviced and they provided him a loaner 2009 Lexus. While Saylor was driving the Lexus loaner it suddenly accelerated and he couldn’t control the car. One of the three other occupants in the car called the police on their cell phone to report that the car’s accelerator was stuck.

The Lexus rear ended another vehicle before going down an embankment and bursting into flames at the bottom of the San Diego River killing everyone inside the car. According to the local police, witnesses on the scene estimated the Lexus was going over 100 mph before it crashed into the embankment.

After an investigation it was determined that the Lexus accident in California was caused by an ill-fitting floor mat and the gas pedal that got entangled in it, prevented Saylor from being able to stop the car. This prompted the first recall for over 8.5 million Toyota vehicles over floor mats and gas pedals and opened the door for many other lawsuits with Toyota over sudden acceleration in both Toyota and Lexus automobiles. After the Saylor accident, many other reports of Toyota acceleration problems were filed and runaway Toyota and Lexus vehicles have now been linked to hundreds of crashes and reportedly over 50 deaths.

A lawsuit was filed by the parents of Mark Saylor and his wife against Toyota. Also named in the Saylor lawsuit is the Bob Baker Lexus dealership that provided Mark Saylor the loaner car while his own car was being serviced. According to the accident report, another driver who had borrowed the same vehicle from the dealer a few days before the tragic auto accident complained to the receptionist that the Lexus had accelerated out of control when the gas pedal got stuck in the floor mat. Fortunately, he was able to free the accelerator when he put the gear shift in neutral.

The Toyota acceleration problems are an important business issue. For years, Toyota has been widely recognized for its quality. Even after all the Toyota recalls and problems with sudden acceleration, Consumer Reports 2010 stated that the most problem-free cars are made by Toyota and Honda. I agree that it is important to determine whether the sudden acceleration accidents were the result of negligence on Toyota’s part or if the accidents were due to driver error. In all business, companies strive to produce a product without defects.

Since Toyota is such a large company with a worldwide reputation, other companies follow their suit. Many people will be watching to see how Toyota handles themselves in the face of these recalls and lawsuits. This could set a tone for all companies on how to handle defective product issues and enforce strict consequences in the name of high paying lawsuits for those companies that do not follow the rules.

There are many questions involved in the Toyota products liability lawsuits. Did Toyota install defective parts in their vehicles? Did Toyota know about the sudden acceleration problem and not do anything about it? Installing faulty parts and knowingly covering it up would result in negligence on Toyota’s part. How can a company known for such high quality keep such information a secret from consumers? Were some of the accidents results of driver error and thus can be defended using comparative negligence? Are the suppliers who provided some of the parts such as the floor mats and gas pedals liable?

The fact that Toyota recalled the parts that were said to be involved in causing the sudden acceleration problems proves that the parts were defective. In regards to the question of whether Toyota knew there was a problem, The Washington Post reported that the automaker was aware of acceleration problems in 2003. An internal document from a company field technician written in 2003 describes the unintended acceleration issue and requested immediate action due to the dangerous nature of the problem. The technician also stated, “We are also much afraid of the frequency of this problem in the near future.”

Reports suggest that Toyota has received more than 2,000 complaints of uncontrolled acceleration among their Toyota and Lexus vehicles since 2002. However, the Toyota accelerator problems were not fully investigated until the high-profile crash involving the Saylor family in August 2009 gained national media attention.

Also, federal regulators in 2007 asked Toyota to consider installing software to prevent sudden acceleration in its vehicles after receiving complaints that vehicles could race out of control, company documents show. Yet the automaker only began installing the safety feature, known as brake override, in January, 2010 after a widely publicized accident involving a runaway Lexus ES that killed four people near San Diego.

Since Toyota knew about the sudden acceleration problems and did not do anything about it that is a breach of duty of care resulting in negligence. Toyota had a duty to act in fixing the problem when it was first found out and not years later after a high profile automobile crash. The general rule is that a person is under a duty to all others at all times to exercise reasonable care for the safety of the others’ person and property.

Were some of the Toyota sudden acceleration accidents caused by driver error? Driver error could lead to comparative negligence on the plaintiff’s part. Comparative negligence is used in most states today since contributory negligence results in an all or nothing settlement. Under pure comparative negligence, the law apportions damages between the parties in proportion to the degree of fault or negligence found against them.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s full report on Toyotas and their sudden unintended acceleration problem has not been completed yet, but the preliminary information from it suggests that driver error—not some mysterious mechanical problem in the electronic throttle control—could be to blame in many of the reported accidents. “The early results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyotas and Lexuses surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes”.

Did the drivers who were mistakenly flooring the accelerator commit negligence and as a result are partially to blame for the accident? If it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that it was driver error that led to the accident, yes they can be at fault and thus have comparative negligence. This will have to be taken on a case by case basis as each accident will have to be looked into and determined if there was driver error. If there was driver error, it does not mean that Toyota is totally off the hook as their negligence will be determined as well. It will be up to the courts to decide the percentage of negligence against Toyota and the percentage against the driver.

The assumption of risk defense could possibly be used in the Toyota lawsuits. If the driver of a Toyota vehicle noticed the sudden acceleration problem but did not do anything about it they were taking the risk in driving the car again. However, if the sudden acceleration problem resulted in an accident on the first time it happened than the assumption of risk defense cannot be used as a defense. Again, the assumption of risk defense would have to be determined on a case by case instance and is probably a long shot defense.

Another element to the Toyota sudden acceleration problems is the faulty gas pedals. Some of the faulty gas pedals were manufactured by a company, CTS Corporation headquartered in Elkhart, IN. CTS could also be held negligent for making defective products. Anyone filing a lawsuit against Toyota could also file one against CTS if it can be proven that the gas pedal from their car was made by CTS. This could take some investigating as Toyota has more than one supplier of gas pedals. CTS uses a different material than Denso, Toyota's other supplier of gas pedals. Since there are different materials involved it might not be that hard to determine which pedals were manufactured by CTS.

There could be other variables in each Toyota case. In the Saylor case, he was using a Lexus that was loaned to him by the Bob Baker dealership in El Cajon, CA. As stated earlier, the dealership received a sudden acceleration complaint about that particular vehicle. The Bob Baker dealership was negligent and failed in the duty to act responsibly. The Lexus vehicle that received the complaint should have been looked at before loaning it out to another customer. That was a breach of duty of care on the dealership’s part. Thus, the Bob Baker dealership is now also named in the lawsuit filed by Saylor’s parents.

Perhaps other car dealerships knew of sudden acceleration problems with their new, used or loaner Toyota or Lexus vehicles and did nothing about it. That would open the door for those possible dealerships to be named as defendants in the Toyota lawsuits as they were negligent in not fixing the problem before providing the car to a customer.

What’s interesting about the Toyota product liability lawsuits is that each case could have multiple defendants (Toyota, CPS, local dealership) and also use different defenses. Thus the outcomes could have widely varying results. That’s why each case has to be treated on its own merit to get to the root of why the Toyota accident occurred.

There was negligence on Toyota’s part in putting defective parts in their vehicles and knowingly not doing anything about it resulting in accidents and over 50 deaths. However, comparative negligence due to driver error could be used as a defense to lessen the amount Toyota would have to pay out in a lawsuit. Also, less likely but still a possibility the assumption of risk defense could be used if the driver knowingly used the car again after encountering a sudden acceleration problem.

It could take quite some time before the first Toyota sudden acceleration lawsuit is settled in court. There is also the possibility that there could be an appeal in the case which would lengthen the process. The jury’s verdict and/or the judge’s final ruling on the first Toyota sudden acceleration lawsuit could determine strategies, defenses and monetary judgments of future Toyota lawsuits over the same problem. Also, other carmakers may take note of the outcome and handle future product complaints and safety issues differently. One thing is for sure, whatever the decision is in the Toyota sudden acceleration product liability lawsuit it will be high profile and have a lot of people talking about it.

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