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Toyota accuses plaintiffs of using 'misleading information' in lawsuits

Counsel for the automaker says driver error, not vehicles' electronic throttle control units, are likely to blame for dozens of fatal crashes.

November 19, 2010|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times

Ramping up efforts to defend the safety of its products, Toyota Motor Corp. on Thursday said attorneys who have sued the Japanese automaker have used "misleading information" in an attempt to show that problems with the vehicles' electronic throttle control units caused dozens of fatal crashes.

In a webcast news conference, Toyota attorney Joel H. Smith said there was no evidence that even a single crash could be attributed to the cars' electronic throttle control systems.

He said it was more likely that driver error was to blame, noting that many of the crashes involved older drivers. He attacked plaintiffs' allegations that internal documents showed that Toyota mechanics had replicated unintended acceleration, noting that the documents referred to cars that were not equipped with electronic throttle units.

"All of these are tragic situations, but the important thing to realize is this is not some extraordinary number of fatalities that you can attribute to some defect in the vehicle," Smith said. "Somewhere over 100 people a day on average die in automobile accidents in the United States.... The overwhelming majority of those are related to some error by some human being."

Steve Berman, lead plaintiffs' attorney in the class-action lawsuit, said he was not swayed by Toyota's latest defense, which he said appeared to be an attempt to influence the judge overseeing the case.

"Toyota is betting that by foisting this new barrage of propaganda, they somehow will be able to sway the court through media coverage," Berman said in a prepared statement. "This ham-handed tactic is right in line with Toyota's overall strategy. The issue of unintended acceleration screams for transparency by the car maker. Instead Toyota responds with obfuscation and manipulation."

A federal judge in Orange County is overseeing most of the lawsuits against Toyota, including a class-action lawsuit that seeks compensation for Toyota vehicle owners who have seen the value of their cars diminish and dozens of lawsuits seeking compensation for motorists injured and the survivors of those who were killed in crashes involving sudden acceleration.

Toyota, which has issued more than 11 million recall notices since last year, has acknowledged that sticky gas pedals or floor mat entrapment can cause acceleration problems but has denied any other defect. Those problems have been addressed by the recalls, the automaker said.

Toyota lawyers have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuits.

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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