Toyota Motor Corp. has battled hundreds of lawsuits in recent years related to sudden acceleration.
But a landmark trial began Thursday with opening statements in a Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Other litigation has focused on whether there is an electronic defect that triggers unexpected acceleration in some Toyota cars. But Garo Mardirossian — the attorney representing the heirs of a woman who was killed when her Toyota Camry unexpectedly sped to 100 mph — is skipping that argument entirely.
Instead, the soft-spoken Mardirossian contends that Toyota is liable for a safety device it could have installed but didn't. He's asking the jury to award $20 million to the heirs of Noriko Uno, the woman killed in the 2009 accident.
In his opening statement, he portrayed Toyota Motor Corp. as a callous automaker that skimped on safety by not installing a brake override system on Uno's 2006 Camry. The system, which deactivates the accelerator when the driver presses the brakes, was available in some of Toyota's overseas vehicles at the time, but the automaker didn't include it on its U.S. cars.
Mardirossian mapped out arguments that he hopes will convince jurors that Toyota failed to live up to marketing claims that the Camry was one of the safest vehicles on the road.
"Toyota knew for many years that stuck pedals are a phenomenon with its vehicles," he said.
Mardirossian provided a timeline of the accident for jurors, starting when Uno's Camry was broadsided at an Upland intersection by a Lexus driven by Olga Belo, a codefendant in the case.
That collision shifted Uno in her seat, Mardirossian said, causing the heel of her foot to become wedged on the gas pedal. She tried to stop the car by depressing the brake with her left foot, he said, but the car zoomed ahead, taking Uno on a harrowing 2,600-foot drive against traffic on Euclid Street. She eventually lost control as she evaded oncoming vehicles; the Camry careened into a telephone pole before smashing into a large pepper tree.
Mardirossian argued that a brake override system would have prevented the accident. Witnesses, he said, will tell the jury that the Camry's brake lights were illuminated, proving that Uno depressed the brakes in an effort to regain control of the car.
Toyota has chosen to settle many cases related to sudden acceleration, but it decided to make a stand with the Uno case. Its attorneys say they have a strong position and feel they can win it.
Vincent Galvin Jr., an auto product liability attorney representing Toyota, said that an override system would not have prevented the accident that killed Uno, a 66-year-old bookkeeper. Further, he argued, her Camry had no defect — and the automaker should not be held liable for safety equipment it theoretically could have installed.
Galvin argued that the hypothesis that Uno's foot became stuck in a position that depressed the accelerator was not plausible and defied physics.
"The accident was not caused by the vehicle, it was caused by the driver," Galvin said. "It was pedal misapplication. She was never on the brake and her foot wasn't stuck."
Galvin said that Uno, who had diabetes, was confused as a result of a hypoglycemic episode. Studies show that drivers are prone to pedal errors if they have cognitive deficiencies and are of short stature, both characteristics that he said described Uno.
The fact that Uno made several turns into oncoming traffic and then sped up until she crashed was evidence of confusion and driver error, he said.
A judge has designated the suit as a bellwether case that will help set the direction for hundreds of similar lawsuits against the automaker. Barring a settlement, attorneys said, the trial could last into October.
Already, Toyota has spent well over $1 billion settling lawsuits involving allegations of unintended acceleration, but the world's largest automaker still faces hundreds of other cases awaiting trial.
Previously, Toyota settled the most notorious acceleration case — involving a California Highway Patrolman who was killed, along with his family — for $10 million in late 2010. It also settled a class-action suit filed by people contending that defects hurt the value of their cars, agreeing to pay as much as $1.6 billion. That settlement was finalized by a federal judge in Orange County last month.
Toyota has said there are no electronic defects in its cars that would cause sudden acceleration, and that some of the reported events have been caused by drivers mistaking the gas pedal for the brakes. Toyota still faces about 300 personal injury and death lawsuits in state and federal courts related to sudden acceleration.