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Toyota can't hide settlement terms, judge rules

The automaker did not want to disclose how much it gave the relatives of the family who died in an August 2009 Lexus crash outside San Diego.

December 20, 2010|By Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

Toyota Motor Corp. cannot keep secret the terms of a settlement it made with the family of four people killed in a Lexus accident outside San Diego last year, a Los Angeles judge has ruled.

California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and three members of his family were killed in an August 2009 crash that was blamed on sudden acceleration, setting off a series of recalls and investigations into safety and quality at the world's largest automaker.

Last summer, the Japanese automaker reached a settlement with relatives of the victims for an undisclosed amount. In September, Toyota and the families asked Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mohr to seal that agreement, arguing that revealing the financial details could prejudice public opinion against Toyota and also affect other pending litigation involving both parties.

But on Monday, Mohr denied that motion, arguing that a compelling case for keeping that information confidential had not been made.

He sided with arguments by the Los Angeles Times and other media outlets, as well as one of Toyota's own dealerships, that the terms of the settlement should not be kept secret.

"At the end of the day, I think the motion to seal is not well taken," Mohr said. "I think that in this case, the right to know overpowers the concerns raised by the plaintiffs and defendants."

The judge did not allow the terms of the settlement to be immediately released, however. He gave the parties 48 hours to seek a stay from the state Court of Appeals, and up to 10 days to decide whether they would withdraw the settlement entirely.

In a statement, Toyota said that it had reached "a private, amicable settlement through mutual respect and cooperation without the involvement of the courts, so we are disappointed that the amount of this settlement may be made public against the express wishes of Toyota and these families."

The automaker did not immediately say whether it would appeal the ruling.

John Gomez, an attorney for the families, declined to comment on the decision.

The dealership that opposed keeping the settlement secret, Bob Baker Lexus of El Cajon, is a co-defendant in the lawsuit filed by the families of the accident victims.

The dealership lent Saylor the 2009 Lexus ES that accelerated out of control and crashed. It has not reached a settlement with the families, and it argued that keeping the size of the deal under wraps could have a material effect on its ongoing litigation.

In addition to The Times, the motion was also opposed by Bloomberg News, the Associated Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

And on Wednesday, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas filed a third motion in opposition, arguing that the matter was related to public safety and that the public had a right to know how much Toyota paid to settle the matter.

"I think this was the right order," he said.

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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