Updated: 10/25/2013 2:16 PM
Created: 10/25/2013 7:10 AM KSTP.com
By: Jennie Olson
Toyota Motor Corp. reached a confidential settlement with the victims of a deadly crash in Oklahoma to avoid punitive damages in a case where a jury found a 2005 Camry's on-board electronics system was defective and caused it to accelerate suddenly.
A day earlier, the Oklahoma Country jury awarded a total of $3 million in monetary damages to the driver of the car, who was injured, and the family of the passenger, who was killed in the crash in 2007.
It's the first jury ruling against Toyota in a personal injury case involving unintended acceleration. Of equal significance was the jury's determination that a defect in a Toyota vehicle's software linked to the electronic throttle-control system was to blame. The Japanese automaker has recalled millions of car following claims of unintended acceleration. It has denied that electronics played any role in the problem.
On Friday, Judge Patricia Parrish announced the parties had reached a deal that eliminated the need for the second stage of the trial over punitive damages.
The terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but it includes a provision that Toyota will not appeal the jury's decision, said Jere Beasley, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
"You can rest assured they did not want to go to the punitive phase," Beasley said.
A spokeswoman for Toyota said in a statement the company disagrees with the jury's verdict.
"While we strongly disagree with the verdict, we are satisfied that the parties reached a mutually acceptable agreement to settle this case," said Toyota spokeswoman Carly Schaffner. "We will continue to defend our products vigorously at trial in other legal venues."
On Thursday, the jury awarded $1.5 million in monetary damages to Jean Bookout, 82, the driver of the car who was injured, and $1.5 million to the family of Barbara Schwarz, who died. Bookout's Camry ran through an intersection near Eufaula and slammed into an embankment.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs maintained Toyota knew about the problems, but concealed that information from the public.
Toyota denied those claims. Toyota attorney Randolph Bibb Jr. theorized that Bookout mistakenly pumped the gas pedal instead of the brake.
Toyota previously agreed to a more than $1 billion settlement in 2012 to resolve hundreds of lawsuits claiming economic losses Toyota owners suffered when the Japanese automaker recalled millions of vehicles because of the sudden acceleration problems. But that settlement did not include those suing over wrongful death and injury. Hundreds more of those lawsuits remain.
Toyota has blamed drivers, stuck accelerators or floor mats that trapped the gas pedal for the sudden unintended acceleration claims that led to the recalls. No recalls have been issued related to problems with the vehicle's onboard electronics, and Beasley said that underscores the significance of the jury's verdict in Oklahoma.
"This is the first time where the electronics were the only issue. No mat, no pedals - electronics. That was the key," Beasley said.
Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who teaches about product liability, agreed and noted that the verdict came in a state in which juries have a reputation for being conservative.
"It's significant because Toyota has vociferously denied that there is anything wrong with the electronics in the vehicles," Tobias said. "If that defect continues to be proved, at some point Toyota is going to settle those cases."
A punitive damages phase was called for after the jury decided that Toyota acted with "reckless disregard" for the rights of others. By law, the jury would have been limited to punitive damages in the amount of $3 million.
The verdict came just weeks after Toyota won a separate case in California. There, a jury found Toyota was not liable for the death of a woman who was killed when her 2006 Camry apparently accelerated and crashed despite her efforts to stop. The woman's family was seeking $20 million in damages.
A federal judge in Orange County, California, is dealing with wrongful death and economic loss lawsuits that have been consolidated.
Similar to the Oklahoma County case, federal lawsuits contend that Toyota's electronic throttle-control system was defective and caused vehicles to surge suddenly. Toyota has denied the allegation, and neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor NASA found evidence of electronic problems.
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