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Lawsuits Against Toyota Accelerate Amidst ‘Massive PR Mess’

Posted Feb 3, 2010 7:16 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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As news of claimed acceleration—and, on hybrid models, brake—problems related to an already-massive recall of Toyota automobiles seemingly exploded today, so did news of an ever-expanding list of lawsuits against the automobile manufacturer.

In Ohio, for instance, attorney Stan Chesley filed a potential class action yesterday on behalf of a couple who apparently suffered no physical injury, according to the Associated Press. However, they seek compensation for their inability to drive their Toyota vehicle due to safety concerns caused by, according to their suit, news of "the danger of serious injury and death that can result from sudden acceleration from unknown causes."

Their Hamilton County Common Pleas Court complaint alleges fraud, among other claims

"This is more than just negligence," says Chesley, who filed the suit on behalf of Hugh and Pamela Cox but seeks to represent a class of Ohio residents. "This is something that Toyota has known and kept hidden from the government and the public."

Moving even faster in Texas, attorney Robert Hilliard filed suit Friday in the Corpus Christi Division of the Southern District of Texas on behalf of Sylvia and Albert Pena III. The couple asserts products liability and breach of warranty claims against Toyota on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, reports the Southeast Texas Record.

They say in their suit that they have experienced two incidents in which their 2008 Avalon accelerated on its own, once causing an accident, the Record article recounts.

Toyota, they contend in the suit, has been "fully aware of the recurring problem of sudden acceleration," and, they allege, on information and belief, "sudden unintended accelerations in Toyota and Lexus vehicles ... have resulted in automobile accidents causing 16 deaths and 243 injuries."

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, has said there is no proof anyone was injured as a result of a stuck accelerator pedal, although it confirmed the deaths of five people died resulting from a pedal trapped in a floor mat, the Record reports.

Approximately a dozen such suits against Toyota have been filed in courts in the United States and Canada since November, according to Reuters.

In addition to recalling a total of some 7.7 million vehicles in two separate accelerator-related recalls over the past several months, Toyota has now taken the unprecedented action of halting production and putting the brakes on showroom sales of affected models, the Record notes.

Toyota has set up a web page to provide recall information to affected owners, including company announcements. In an open letter yesterday to Toyota customers, the company's U.S. president and chief operating officer, Jim Lentz, says customer safety is Toyota's highest priority and promises to justify their continued trust in the company.

Meanwhile, even Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Inc., has gotten into the fray, contending that his own 2010 Prius has accelerated up to 97 mph on its own when he tried to use cruise control. Yet, Wozniak says, when he complained to Toyota Motor Corp. and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the possible safety issue posed, no one would listen, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Now, following the media blitz, Toyota engineers are going to borrow his car for a week to try to diagnose the problem, the newspaper says.

The situation has been exacerbated, reports the National Law Journal in an article reprinted in Corporate Counsel, by what the magazine describes as a "massive PR mess."

In a lengthy question-and-answer session, partner Edwin Baum of Proskauer Rose compares the situation to the Tylenol-tampering fiasco and Ford Pinto fuel tank scandal of decades ago. While the companies involved survived these debacles—and Toyota will, too, he predicts—it's sure to be mired in litigation for years to come.

And it isn't just Toyota that is going to be embroiled in litigation as a result of the situation, reports National Underwriter.

Insurers are already looking at subrogration issues, to see whether third parties—including, potentially, car owners who don't promptly and properly deal with Toyota recall issues—might be responsible for some losses, according to the article.

In addition to personal injury claims over accidents in Toyota vehicles and economic loss claims alleging they have diminished in value that the company already reportedly is facing, some Toyota owners who haven't been physically injured can be expected to file deceptive advertising and lemon law claims, according to Baum's interview in the NLJ.

Additional coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Transportation Chief Mulls Toyota Civil Penalty, Warns Against Driving Recalled Cars"

ABAJournal.com: "Ex-Toyota Lawyer’s Battle Over Documents Could Rev Up Other Cases Against Automaker"

Bloomberg: "Apple Co-Founder Says His Prius Has Acceleration Flaw"

New York Times: "Prius May Be Another Blow to Toyota’s Reputation"

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