Friday, January 16, 2015

Palm Beach Judge Allows Punitives Against Toyota in Paralyzing Crash

This explains the origins of the case in the article below:

+ 37,900 complaints ignored by Toyota

Palm Beach Judge Allows Punitives Against Toyota in Paralyzing Crash

Palm Beach Judge Allows Punitives Against Toyota in Paralyzing Crash
Melanie BellMeenu Sasser

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A Palm Beach Circuit Court ruling upped the ante in a case against Toyota Motor Corp. from estimates of $15 million to $20 million to a potential $135 million to $180 million, the plaintiffs attorney said.

Judge Meenu Sasser decided Tuesday that lawyers for Bret Quinlan will be allowed to ask for punitive damages against the automaker in an accident blamed on a faulty acceleration system in his 2001 Camry.

The products liability lawsuit is one of several hundred in federal and state courts targeting Toyota’s electronic throttle-control system and claiming it causes cars to accelerate without warning.

Quinlan was a student at the University of Central Florida when his Camry suddenly went out of control on State Road 551 in Orlando and ran into a building July 17, 2011. The spinal cord injury he suffered in the crash left him a quadriplegic requiring constant care.

“All he can do is blink his eyes,” said lead plaintiffs attorney Ted Leopold of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Palm Beach Gardens. Trial is set for Nov. 2.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. spokeswoman Amanda Rice issued a statement Thursday offering sympathy to Quinlan. Without commenting directly on the case, she said, “Multiple independent evaluations have confirmed the safety of Toyota’s electronic throttle control systems, which are equipped with numerous, robust fail-safe systems. Bottom line, there are no real-world scenarios in which Toyota electronics can cause unintended acceleration, and we do not believe a brake override system would have prevented this unfortunate accident.”

Rice noted the vehicle was not covered by company recalls for floor mat entrapment or sticky accelerator pedals.

The suit filed by Leopold’s firm in 2012 cited spontaneous acceleration as one possible cause of the accident, along with defective spot welding that led to a failure of the floor pan structure. When the automaker denied its vehicles were susceptible to acceleration problems, that allegation was dropped, according to a release from Cohen Milstein.

Two subsequent events brought the litigation’s focus back to unintended acceleration and set the stage for the punitive damage claim.

In 2013, an Oklahoma City jury awarded $3 million to the victims of a Camry accident. In 2007, Jean Bookout, 76, sped out of control as she exited a highway, and the resulting crash injured her and killed her passenger Barbara Schwarz, 70.

It was the first loss for Toyota in a spontaneous acceleration case. The company had denied there were any defects in Bookout’s Camry.

More significantly, in another first, the jury decided it would be appropriate to assess punitive damages against Toyota. On the eve of jurors determining the dollar amount, the company settled for an undisclosed sum.

Internal emails and correspondence that surfaced in the Oklahoma case showed Toyota officials blamed a problem with floor mats “when in fact they used that as a guise to cover up the electronic issue,” Leopold said. “That’s the theme that comes through loud and clear.”

Toyota recalled more than 10 million vehicles for problems relating to sudden acceleration. The first recall in 2009 involved 3.5 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles with a defect that could cause floor mats to jam accelerator pedals. Toyota settled suits for economic losses for about $1.6 billion.

The electronic throttle-control problem could have been solved by installing a brake override system for “a few dollars,” Leopold said. A comparable sum resolved the floor mat issue, he said.

The second key event occurred in March 2014 when Toyota entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department and agreed to pay a record $1.2 billion fine. The company admitted it misled consumers by concealing and misspeaking about safety issues that caused spontaneous acceleration, the Cohen Milstein release said.

At the Quinlan trial, “we certainly intend the jury to hear about the admission by Toyota that they committed fraud on the U.S. government by failing to provide information with the purpose of a cover-up related to the acceleration problem,” Leopold said.

In Sasser’s order allowing consideration of a punitive damages claim, she noted the defendants argued Quinlan’s lawyers “commingled facts related to two admitted [mechanical] defects with those of unsupported allegations of electronics defects.”

The court may consider Toyota’s evidence refuting Quinlan’s claims “on a different motion,” she wrote.

But for now, Florida pleading standards allow a jury to consider the possibility of awarding punitive damages as well as compensatory damages for lifetime care.

The plaintiff offered evidence reflecting “facts from which it could be found that defendants were aware of both the electronic and mechanical issues, but delayed warning the public of the electronic issues in order to protect their own interests,” Sasser wrote. “Such a finding would support punitive damages.”

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