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Toyota cites NASA study in effort to dismiss sudden-acceleration suit

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Toyota Motor Corp. is using a new NASA study finding no fault with its electronics as evidence that a sudden-acceleration class-action suit against it should be dismissed.

In a filing in federal court in Santa Ana this week, the Japanese automaker argued that the study, conducted at the request of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and released Feb. 8, was proof that its vehicles had no defects and that therefore the class-action suit is without merit.

“Plaintiffs are chasing a phantom theory of defect that only last week NASA and NHTSA, after an extensive investigation, jointly confirmed does not exist,” Toyota outside counsel Lisa Gilford wrote in a motion filed Monday.

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She asked U.S. District Judge James Selna to dismiss the suit, which consolidates scores of claims from Toyota and Lexus owners alleging that the presence of defects in their vehicles negatively affected the vehicles’ value. News of the filing was first published by the National Law Journal.

This is the second time Toyota has sought dismissal of the economic damages suit. In November, Selna refused to drop the allegations based on the evidence presented by Toyota at the time; in December he also turned down a motion by Toyota to dismiss personal injury and death claims related to sudden-acceleration claims.

By holding up the NASA study and a companion NHTSA report in court, Toyota appears to be using the government’s research not only to help clear its name with the public but also to help it climb out from under its legal problems.

Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore declined to comment on the company’s legal strategy but said the plaintiffs’ “continued inability to provide a coherent theory of an alleged defect and their blatant attempts to shift the focus of this case” was important.

The NASA study focused on nine Toyota vehicles over 10 months, finding no electronic defects that could cause sudden acceleration.

The study stopped short of clearing Toyota: It pointed to what it called mechanical defects that could cause acceleration problems. (Toyota has issued two recalls to address those issues.) Still, it was widely interpreted as a vindication. The carmaker hailed the report, saying it “should further reinforce confidence in the safety of Toyota and Lexus vehicles.”

Steve Berman, co-lead counsel in the economic damages suits, pointed out that government studies such as National Transportation Safety Board reports on airplane crashes are almost never admitted as evidence in court because the facts are in dispute. He said he would oppose admitting the NASA and NHTSA reports on the same grounds.

“I don’t think it will be admissible,” Berman said. He said the reports were “a contested issue” rather than proven fact, and that he did not agree with the findings or methodology of the government studies.

One of his specific complaints was that the study was heavily redacted, making it difficult for his researchers to understand how the research was conducted. Berman said he wrote to Toyota this week asking for an unredacted copy but had not yet heard back.

A hearing to review the dismissal motion is scheduled for April 29, the court filings show.

ken.bensinger@latimes.com


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