In a key setback for Toyota Motor Corp., an Oklahoma City jury found that faulty electronic systems in a Camry sedan caused it to accelerate out of control and crash, killing one woman and injuring another.
The decision, handed down late Thursday, marked the first time that the Japanese automaker has been found responsible for sudden acceleration in one of its cars.
The jury ordered Toyota to pay $1.5 million in compensatory damages to the driver of the vehicle, Jean Bookout, and an additional $1.5 million to the family of Barbara Schwarz, who was killed in the crash.
After a brief deliberation following the nearly three-week trial, the jury decided that software in the 2005 Camry's electronic throttle system was defective and caused the accident in September 2007.
Moreover, the jury determined that Toyota acted in "reckless disregard" to the safety of others, a finding that opens the door on punitive damages. Deliberations on that award will begin Friday.
Toyota spokeswoman Carly Schaffner confirmed the verdict but declined to discuss the matter further. "Per the court's instructions, we cannot comment on the ruling pending the ongoing deliberations by the jury," she said.
An attorney for the plaintiffs, Cole Portis, also declined to comment until punitive damages were decided.
Toyota still faces hundreds of personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits related to sudden acceleration.
The automaker has vigorously denied that the electronics and software in its vehicles played any role in the incidents.
It has argued in court that the accidents were caused by driver error, such as stepping on the wrong pedal by mistake. It used that line of reasoning to defend itself successfully in three prior trials, and argued similarly in the Oklahoma case.
But attorneys for Bookout told the jury that flaws in the software driving the Camry's electronic throttle system caused it to accelerate and crash into an embankment. They pointed to skid marks as evidence that Bookout, who was 76 at the time of the crash, stepped on the brake and pulled the emergency brake but could not stop the vehicle.
In addition, they contended that Toyota had been aware of problems with the electronic throttle system but did not properly address them.
The jury verdict could provide substantial momentum to that line of reasoning in future cases, said Adam Scales, an expert on tort law at Rutgers University-Camden.
"The electronics issue is a scary idea for Toyota because it's the sort of defect that seems calculated to spook jurors," said Scales, who also cautioned that one adverse verdict was not sufficient to declare a clear trend.
"There will probably still be a debate within Toyota on whether this outcome is an outlier," Scales said.
Toyota has been confronting the sudden acceleration issue since 2009, when it was brought to national attention after the deaths of a California Highway patrolman and his family in a runaway Lexus ES outside San Diego.
In the months after that wreck, Toyota recalled millions of vehicles and its top executives came from Japan to testify before several congressional committees investigating the problem. The automaker eventually paid more than $65 million in fines for violations of federal vehicle safety laws.
Toyota has settled a number of sudden acceleration lawsuits out of court, including a $10-million deal reached in 2010 with the family of the California trooper.
Late last year it agreed to pay $1.6 billion to settle a class-action case brought by thousands of Toyota owners who contended that the sudden acceleration problem damaged the value of their vehicles.
The automaker also has had several legal victories, escaping liability in cases decided in New York in 2011 and Pennsylvania in June.