One lawsuit filed last week by the husband and adult son of an Upland woman contends that a defect caused the woman's 2006 Camry to unexpectedly accelerate to 100 mph and crash into a light pole in August, killing her. The motorist, Noriko Uno, applied the brakes and pulled the emergency brake but was unable to gain control of the car, said the Uno family's attorney, Garo Mardirossian. The lawsuit, which seeks compensatory and punitive damages, alleges that an electronic problem -- not floor mats or sticky gas pedals -- caused the crash.
"They haven't addressed the sudden-acceleration issue," Mardirossian said. "All they've tried to do is take the attention away from what the real problem is."
To put Toyota's potential exposure in context, consider a $368-million verdict against Ford Motor Co., which was blamed in the rollover of an Explorer that rendered a San Diego woman quadriplegic in 2002. The verdict was reduced on appeal to $82 million and the U.S. Supreme Court in November declined to reduce the damages.
In 1978, an Orange County jury ordered Ford to pay $125 million in punitive damages to a teenager who was critically burned when a rear-end collision caused the gas tank in a Pinto to explode. That award was reduced to $6.6 million.
Toyota's liability could exceed what Ford faced in the Explorer rollover cases, Mardirossian said.
"It might be even bigger because of the number of vehicles. Ford was one model. This is many, many vehicles."
David Owen, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, said the litigation in the coming months could tie up Toyota for two to four years. He believes the company's exposure in the class-action case would be unlikely to exceed $1 billion -- a manageable figure for the world's largest automobile manufacturer. The company reported more than $200 billion in worldwide sales for the fiscal year that ended in March 2009.
"I'm considering $1 billion or $2 billion or even $3 billion as not catastrophic to the company," Owen said. "If it were a much smaller company it could be very destructive, but it won't be to Toyota.
"Just as Ford rebounded from the Explorer problems in the early 2000s, my guess is Toyota in five years will have this completely behind them . . . and the economic damages to the company will prove to have been painful but far from devastating," he said.
For drivers, it's not all bad news. Many insurance companies will seek reimbursement from the automaker for damages from any accidents that are linked to a Toyota safety defect.
Drivers in such instances would probably get their deductible waived or repaid, and the accident wouldn't count against their driving record.
And it's unlikely that there will be any changes in the premiums people pay to insure Toyotas. A person's driving record, age and years behind the wheel far outweigh reparable safety defects in vehicles when rates are calculated. The full legal and financial effects of the Toyota recalls are expected to take years to play out.
"We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg," said Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California. "This has the potential of being much bigger, and it depends on what Toyota does and whether it actually fixes the problem."