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Jury awards $10 million in Toyota death case but absolves automaker

October 10, 2013|By Ken Bensinger and Jerry Hirsch
  • Noriko Uno was killed when her 2006 Camry crashed into a light pole at a high speed in Upland on Aug. 28, 2009. This photo shows her car after the collision.
Noriko Uno was killed when her 2006 Camry crashed into a light pole at a high…

A Los Angeles County jury has awarded $10 million to the family of an Upland woman whose 2006 Toyota Camry accelerated out of control and crashed, killing her.

But in an unexpected twist, the verdict came entirely against a woman, Olga Belo, who crashed into the Toyota, setting off the accident. Toyota was absolved of any responsibility by the jury.

"To get a $10-million verdict for a 66-year old woman ... is a great verdict," said Garo Mardirossian, attorney for the family of Noriko Uno, who died at the wheel in August 2009. "It was a win, win, win."  

The surprise verdict puts an end to the first major trial against the Japanese automaker over allegations that its vehicles suffered from dangerous unintended acceleration. It marks a victory for the automaker, which has spent years and billions of dollars defending itself and still faces scores of lawsuits over the issue.  

"We are gratified that the jury concluded the design of the 2006 Camry did not contribute to this unfortunate accident," Toyota said in a statement.

Toyota faces its first federal case next month in Santa Ana, in a suit involving an elderly Georgia woman, Ida Starr St. John, whose Camry accelerated and crashed into a school. She died before trial, but her heirs are continuing the case. Toyota had attempted to get the case thrown out, but this week a federal judge allowed it to continue. 

The verdict in the Uno case may not be a strong indicator of the outcomes of future trials, because the attorneys in this case forwarded a somewhat unique legal theory. 

Lawyers for other plaintiffs are set to argue that Toyotas contain electronic defects that can cause sudden acceleration. But Mardirossian, Uno's attorney, claimed that the car's lack of a brake override system was responsible for his client's death.

That fail-safe, designed to prevent a car from accelerating if the brake is depressed, was adopted by many auto manufacturers in the early 2000s, but Toyota didn't start using it until 2010. 

Toyota's lawyers countered that the safety feature would not have saved Uno because, they alleged, she mistook the accelerator for the brake. What's more, they argued that brake override was not -- and still is not -- required under federal vehicle safety standards.

Belo, meanwhile, was driving a vehicle that smashed into Uno's Camry. The impact caused Uno's foot to become trapped on the accelerator pedal, leading the car to take off at high speed, ultimately crashing into a tree and a utility pole. The jury blamed that crash on Uno's death.

The sudden-acceleration issue first arose for Toyota after the August 2009 death of an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and his family in a runaway Lexus ES outside San Diego.

The accident, which happened to occur the same day as Uno's fatal crash, drew national attention and led to a slew of huge and costly recalls, congressional hearings and more than $65 million in fines for federal safety code violations.  

Numerous outside experts have claimed that the sudden-acceleration events could be caused by an electronic defect in Toyota vehicles, although no evidence has been presented that conclusively proves that theory. 

Toyota, for its part, has vigorously denied those allegations and points to studies conducted by NASA and the National Academy of Sciences that did not find any such bug. 

Toyota has been named in hundreds of lawsuits since the issue emerged. Before now, only one, in New York state, reached a jury.

Toyota has settled a number of cases, including a 2010 deal with the family of the CHP officer for $10 million, and a $1.6-billion deal, approved this year, in a class action case brought by thousands of Toyota owners claiming the sudden acceleration decreased the value of their vehicles. 

Toyota also settled the first two major cases that had been selected by judges to go to trial this year, although the size of those settlements was not disclosed. 

Another trial kicked off this week in Oklahoma state court. The plaintiff, Jean Bookout, claims that her 2005 Camry accelerated out of control -- injuring her and killing a passenger -- because of an electronic defect. 

That trial is expected to last three weeks. 

ALSO:

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Drivers ignoring child seat and seat belt rules are killing children

Follow Bensinger on Twitter (@kenbensinger) and Facebook

Follow Hirsch on Twitter (@LATimesJerry), Facebook and Google+

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