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Toyota loses liability case, settles before punitive decision

Over 11 million U.S. vehicles made by Toyota, including many owned by Illinois residents, were recalled during the last four years for unexpected acceleration problems. Until recently, no auto defects liability case over the accelerator issue had been successful.

That's not to say Toyota won every related case. The car maker settled a $1.6 billion class action lawsuit for economic damages in July. The latest verdict was unique, because a jury ruled Toyota had "reckless disregard" for car owners' safety. An undisclosed settlement was reached, before the jury moved into the punitive damages phase of the trial. The settlement was above the $3 million compensatory damage award already decided.

Legal analysts said it's likely the car manufacturer wanted to head off the possibility of an enormous pay out. Punitive damage awards are often high amounts, to act as deterrents to all negligent manufacturers. Toyota was victorious in three earlier accelerator-related cases.

The case was based on an Oklahoma accident involving a 2005 Toyota Camry, a car not on the recall list. The vehicle struck an embankment, after suddenly speeding up through an intersection. The elderly driver was injured; her passenger died.

Toyota attorneys argued the driver caused the crash. The jury didn't buy it. The verdict could encourage hundreds of Toyota owners to redouble legal efforts.

The recall was issued after Toyota owners complained vehicles were accelerating spontaneously. The government fined the automaker for its slow response. Toyota's reputation and sales also suffered during the recall. Publicity from the latest trial is expected to have some negative impact, although Toyota recently reported its earnings were the best in five years.

No one wants to spend years fighting a liability case. Deep-pocketed defendants have been known to wear down plaintiffs with repeated motions and appeals. Persistence and solid evidence make the battle worth fighting. Settlements are also just solutions for many injured parties.

Source: nytimes.com, "Toyota Agrees to Settlement in Fatal Acceleration Crash" Jaclyn Trop, Oct. 25, 2013

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