LOS ANGELES (AP) — Noriko Uno was afraid of driving fast, often avoiding the freeway and taking the same route every day from her Upland home to and from her family’s sushi restaurant. She had put only 10,000 miles on her 2006 Camry in about four years.
So when her car unexpectedly accelerated to speeds up to 100 mph on a street with a posted limit of 30, the 66-year-old bookkeeper did everything she could to slow down, stepping on the brake pedal and pulling the emergency brake handle as she swerved to avoid other vehicles.
Uno was killed when her car went onto a median and struck a telephone pole and a tree.
Hers is the first so-called “bellwether” case to go to trial that could determine whether Toyota Motor Corp. should be held liable for sudden unintended acceleration in its vehicles — a claim made by motorists that plagued the Japanese automaker and led to lawsuits, settlements and recalls of millions of its cars and SUVs.
“Toyota decided to make safety an option instead of a standard on their vehicles,” said attorney Garo Mardirossian, who is representing Uno’s husband and son. “They decided to save a few bucks, and by doing so, it cost lives.”
Toyota has said there was no defect in Uno’s Camry. The automaker has blamed such crashes on accelerators that got stuck, floor mats that trapped the gas pedal and driver error. The company has settled some wrongful death cases and agreed to pay more than $1 billion to resolve lawsuits where owners said the value of their vehicles plummeted after Toyota’s recalls because of sudden-acceleration concerns.
The Uno trial, starting with jury selection Monday, is expected to last two months. The proceeding represents the first of the bellwether cases in state courts, which are chosen by a judge to help predict the potential outcome of other lawsuits making similar claims.
Other cases expected to go to trial in state courts this year include one in Oklahoma and another in Michigan. There are more than 80 similar cases filed in state courts.
The Toyota litigation has gone on parallel tracks in state and federal court, with both sides agreeing to settlements so far. A federal judge in Orange County is dealing with wrongful death and economic loss lawsuits that have been consolidated. He’s expected to give final approval to the economic loss settlement next week.
Federal lawsuits contend that Toyota’s electronic throttle control system was defective and caused vehicles to surge unexpectedly. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have deposed Toyota employees, reviewed software code and pored over thousands of documents.
Toyota has denied the allegation and neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor NASA found evidence of electronic problems. A trial in one of the lead cases is scheduled for November.
The Uno trial will likely focus on why Toyota didn’t have a mechanism to override the accelerator if the gas and brake pedals are pressed simultaneously in Camrys sold in the U.S. The automaker put the brake override system in its European fleet, Mardirossian said.
Toyota said Uno’s vehicle was equipped with a “state-of-the-art” braking system and denied that any defect played a role in her death.
“We are confident the evidence will show that a brake override system would not have prevented this accident and that there was no defect in Mrs. Uno’s vehicle,” the automaker said in a statement about the upcoming trial.
Legal observers said Uno’s attorneys won’t necessarily have to prove what was wrong with the vehicle, but show that the accident could have been prevented with a brake override system.
“If the plaintiff succeeds in convincing a jury it wasn’t human error, that it was attributed to the car, I think they have a strong case,” said Gregory Keating, a law professor at the University of Southern California. “Jurors, as drivers, are likely to believe strongly that cars shouldn’t become uncontrollable in this way.”
Toyota has been successful in court before. Two years ago, a federal jury in New York found the automaker wasn’t responsible for a 2005 crash that the driver blamed on the floor mats or defects with the electronic throttle system.
It was nearly four years ago when Uno, who was out grocery shopping and depositing receipts from the restaurant, died. Witnesses told police they saw Uno swerve to avoid hitting an oncoming truck, according to the lawsuit.
Mardirossian said Uno was a cautious driver and neither floor mats nor driver error were to blame. He said witnesses heard the Camry engine racing and saw brake lights going on and off. Pulling the handbrake had “zero effect,” Mardirossian said.
“Imagine her strapped into her Toyota Camry driving 100 mph knowing the next move would be fatal,” he said. “She saved many lives by veering off into that center median knowing that death was near.”
That same day — Aug. 28, 2009 — off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and three family members were killed on a suburban San Diego freeway when their 2009 Lexus ES 350 reached speeds of more than 120 mph, struck a sport utility vehicle, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames. A 911 call captured Saylor’s brother-in-law telling the others to pray before the car crashed.
Toyota, which makes the luxury Lexus brand, agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the victims’ family for $10 million. An inquiry into the crash led to recalls of millions of Toyota vehicles. Investigators said a wrong-size floor mat trapped the accelerator and caused the accident.
The Uno family lawsuit, which claims product liability and negligence, seeks general and punitive damages. Mardirossian said Uno’s relatives want to have a jury decide that the crash was not her fault.
“They want to make sure to get their loved one’s name cleared,” he said.