Good News for Toyota (at last)

For many, the year 2009 will be remembered as the launching point for several successful careers. President Obama was inaugurated. Chesley Sullenberger became America’s hero. Taylor Swift released 2009’s top selling album leading to her 2010 Grammy. For the Toyota Motor Corporation, however, the year was not so kind.

For Toyota, 2009 marked the beginning of the largest vehicle recall in the company’s history. Initially, Toyota was forced to recall some 3.8 million vehicles upon the discovery that removable floor mats could cause accelerator pedals to stick in the depressed position. Toyota later broadened the recall after determining that the accelerator pedals could stick even without the aid of the mats. In total, over 6 million Toyota vehicles were recalled. As of February 2010, 2,262 incidents of unintended acceleration had been reported. That figure included 815 crashes, 341 injuries, and 19 deaths. Not surprisingly, Toyota became a popular defendant in a plethora of subsequent lawsuits. Reports estimated that these lawsuits could cost Toyota over $3 billion. Certainly, 2009 was a year Toyota would just as soon forget.

Recently, Toyota’s misfortunes took an unexpected turn when the first of these recall-related lawsuits went to trial. In Sitafalwalla v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.SA., Inc., No. 08-CV-3001 (E.D.N.Y. 2011), the plaintiff, Dr. Amir Sitafalwalla, sued Toyota in a New York federal court, claiming that a defect, in either the electronic throttle system or the floor mats of his 2005 Scion, caused his car to suddenly accelerate into a tree. After the plaintiff’s expert testified that the accident was caused by an unsecured driver floor mat, the defense moved to exclude any evidence related to the electronic system. Judge E. Thomas Boyle, the U.S. magistrate presiding, granted Toyota’s motion. With evidence of the electronic system excluded, counsel for Toyota argued that the accident was caused by the driver – not the floor mat. After deliberating for less than one hour, the jury agreed with Toyota.

Jury forewoman, Regina Desio, indicated that after weighing all of the evidence, the jury “came to the conclusion that there was not a defect with the automobile.” Toyota is touting the jury’s conclusion as precedent for the hundreds of other lawsuits yet to be decided. Toyota spokeswoman, Celeste Migliore said:

[The case] clearly demonstrates a plaintiff’s inability to identify, let alone prove the existence of, an alleged electronic defect in Toyota vehicles that could cause unintended acceleration.

While we here at Abnormal Use share Toyota’s enthusiasm with the jury’s decision, it may be premature to accurately forecast the outcome of the outstanding lawsuits. First, jury verdicts lack precedential value. Unfortunately, we have all experienced the enigma of the unpredictable jury. Second, we do not know how much the plaintiff’s own conduct may have influenced the jury’s decision. Certainly, a jury may treat a plaintiff driving at an excessive rate of speed on a neighborhood street differently than a plaintiff gently rolling away from a stop sign prior to the “unintended acceleration.” The plaintiff alleges that his car accelerated as he shifted from drive to park with his foot on the brake. We do not know how credible the jury found these allegations, only that it found Toyota was not liable. Finally, no evidence was actually presented to the jury regarding an alleged electronic defect. Because Judge Boyle disallowed the plaintiff’s evidence on the electronic system, at best, Toyota may cite the jury verdict as evidence that the floor mats were not defective.

Whether this decision is a foreshadowing of things to come or an outlier in a long series of jury verdicts, only time will tell. For the moment, however, we should let Toyota enjoy the good news. Its been awhile.

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