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Toyota faces the wrath of a jury

October 25, 2013|By Michael Hiltzik
  • Toyota at the Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany last month.
Toyota at the Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany last month. (Uli Deck / EPA )

To a big company like Toyota, a $3-million product liability verdict looks like chump change. But you can tell how seriously the automaker takes it by the speed with which it paid off the victorious plaintiff. Jean Bookout of Yukon, Oklahoma, won her verdict on Thursday, and before sunrise Friday the company had settled with her out of court.

Why? Because the issue in the state court case was Toyota's thorniest problem, the unexplained acceleration has injured scores of motorists since at least 2002 (according to claims filed in various courts).

As my colleagues Ken Bensinger and Jerry Hirsch reported, Bookout's case was the first in which a jury agreed that the acceleration problem was caused by an electronic flaw in Toyota vehicles. (Half the $3 million went to Bookout, half to the family of Barbara Schwarz, who was killed in the 2007 crash.)

The electronic glitch has been blamed by some experts and motorists for years, but Toyota has steadfastly denied it. The company has instead blamed floormats creeping up on accelerator pedals and even sticky pedals; it fixed both supposed flaws after recalls. Federal authorities have tended to back the company's position that an electronic design flaw isn't responsible.

Still, the company has moved to settle several lawsuits in which its electronics could have been implicated. These include a $10-million deal reached in 2010 with survivors of a California Highway patrolman and three family members killed in a runaway Lexus ES outside San Diego.

The Bookout verdict could embolden more plaintiffs to reexamine the company's electronics design. If that happens, the question of whether the automaker has been dodging blame for faulty engineering might finally get an answer. Stay tuned.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, on Facebook or by email.

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