Toyota Wins at First Trial Over Alleged Unintended Acceleration

Contributed by Isabella C. Lacayo

As has been widely reported, Toyota Motor Corporation and Toyota Sales USA are facing numerous lawsuits over alleged unintended acceleration in its vehicles and related voluntary recalls.  For background, see Keith Gibson and Michael Bell’s post about the issue as it was just developing.  Many of the pending cases have been consolidated into a California federal court multi-district litigation.  But the first case to go to trial over allegations of unintended acceleration in a Toyota vehicle was in New York federal court and resulted in a complete defense victory last week.

In the case, Sitafalwalla v. Toyota Motor Sales USA, Inc., No. 08-cv-03001 (E.D.N.Y. April 1, 2011), the plaintiff claimed that his car accident – a head-on collision into a tree – was caused by design defects in his vehicle, a 2005 Scion TC manufactured by Toyota.  At trial, plaintiff’s counsel argued that there was a design defect in the Scion TC’s floor mats that caused the car to accelerate unexpectedly and crash.  Plaintiff’s counsel also argued that the Scion TC was defectively designed because it did not have a brake override system installed that, according to plaintiff’s counsel, could have prevented the accident.  Toyota’s defense at trial was simple: human error was the cause of the unfortunate crash.  Toyota argued that the plaintiff mistakenly stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake pedal and was responsible for the accident.  The jury, after very brief deliberations, agreed with Toyota.  As reported by Businessweek, the jury forewoman stated that the jury had “weighed all the evidence and came to the conclusion that there was not a defect with the automobile.”

Back in February, the U.S. Department of Transportation released the results of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s study into whether the electronic systems in Toyota vehicles played a role in alleged unintended acceleration incidents.  The NHTSA began the ten-month study at the request of Congress and enlisted NASA engineers to help study Toyota’s electronic systems.  The NHTSA and NASA concluded that Toyota’s electronic systems are not flawed and do not cause unintended acceleration incidents.

While there are many cases still pending against Toyota, last week’s jury verdict along with the NHTSA and NASA’s findings may poise Toyota for further success in court over alleged unintended acceleration.