Toyota to begin settlement talks over acceleration suits

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DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- Toyota Motor Corp. and lawyers pursuing claims alleging the company’s vehicles suddenly accelerated, causing death or injury, will begin an “intensive settlement process” to resolve the lawsuits, a judge said.

U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana, Calif., on Thursday issued an order halting the suits after Toyota and the plaintiffs’ lawyers asked for time to try settling the cases. Selna was scheduled to hear the first trial in March of about 200 federal claims consolidated before him.

“Participation in the intensive settlement process is open to all plaintiffs,” Selna said in the order. “Cases that do not resolve during the initial settlement conference shall be set for a formal mediation.”

The move toward settlement comes less than two months after Toyota lost its first trial in a lawsuit claiming an electronic defect can cause its vehicles to speed up uncontrollably. Toyota settled after an Oklahoma City jury in October ordered the company to pay $3 million.

Selna set a hearing for Jan. 14 for any comment on the settlement process. Settlement conferences would begin in February, he said.

The process will also include cases consolidated in state court in Los Angeles, said Carly Schaffner, a spokeswoman for Toyota.

'Greater efficiency'

“This process will bring greater efficiency to the resolution of pending cases and provide a clear path forward for those claims that cannot be resolved outside of trial,” Schaffner said in an e-mail. “We continue to stand behind the safety and quality of our vehicles and are grateful to our customers who have continued to stand behind Toyota.”

Any lawsuits not resolved through the settlement or mediation process might go to trial, according to Todd Walburg, one of the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys in the federal court cases.

The process “provides immediate access to plaintiffs who would like to resolve their cases or the ability to determine whether a trial is in their best interest,” he said in a statement.

A lawsuit set for trial in state court in Wayne, W.Va., has also been settled, said plaintiffs’ attorney Edgar Heiskell, who represents driver Opal Gay Vance. Vance suffered lower-back injuries when her 2010 Camry sped up and crashed, Heiskell said Friday.

Trial canceled

The confidential settlement averted a trial scheduled for Jan. 21. A separate sudden-acceleration lawsuit in Flint, Mich., over the death of another of his clients is still scheduled to begin trial in February, Heiskell said.

The carmaker recalled more than 10 million vehicles for problems related to unintended acceleration in 2009 and 2010, starting with a September 2009 announcement that it was recalling 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles because of a defect that might cause floor mats to jam accelerator pedals. The company later recalled vehicles over defects involving the pedals themselves.

The recalls led to lawsuits claiming that defects harmed the value of Toyota vehicles or caused accidents leading to death and injury. Toyota settled suits brought by car owners who claimed economic losses for about $1.6 billion.

Toyota won the first three sudden-acceleration claims that reached jury verdicts after the recalls, before losing in Oklahoma City. Defense verdicts include injury cases in New York in 2011 and Philadelphia in June. A Los Angeles jury in October cleared Toyota of fault for the death of a 66-year-old woman.

Mats, pedals

In many of the death and injury lawsuits, including the one in Oklahoma City, plaintiffs claimed that loose floor mats and sticky pedals don’t explain all episodes of sudden acceleration and they faulted the electronic throttle control system.

Lawyers suing Toyota say that reports of unintended acceleration increased after Toyota began equipping vehicles with its ETCS-i system, whereby the engine’s throttle is controlled electronically, not mechanically. Signals are sent from a sensor that detects how far the gas pedal is pressed to a computer module that opens and closes the throttle.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers as well as Toyota sought a stay, or delay, in pending lawsuits consolidated in California state and federal courts, according to a joint filing Thursday.

“Neither side has an interest in delay for its own sake,” they said. “The purpose of the stay period is to permit complete concentration on the process without the distraction of other activities in the case.”

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