Noriko Uno was afraid of driving fast, often avoiding the freeway and taking the same route every day from her Upland, Los Angeles home to and from her family's sushi restaurant. She had put only 16,000km on her 2006 Camry in about four years.
So when her car unexpectedly accelerated to speeds up to 160km/h on a street with a posted limit of 48km/h, the 66-year-old bookkeeper did everything she could to slow down, stepping on the brake pedal and pulling up the handbrake lever as she swerved to avoid hitting other vehicles.
Uno was killed when her car went onto a median and struck a telephone pole and a tree.
Her case is the first to go to trial in a proceeding that could determine whether Toyota should be held liable for sudden unintended acceleration in its vehicles - a claim made by drivers that plagued the Japanese automaker and led to lawsuits, settlements and recalls of millions of its cars and SUVs.
Attorney Garo Mardirossian, who is representing Uno's husband and son, said: “Toyota decided to make safety an option instead of a standard on its vehicles.
“They decided to save a few bucks, and by doing so, it cost lives.”
Toyota insists there was no defect in Uno's Camry. It has blamed such crashes on accelerators that got stuck, floor mats that trapped the accelerator pedal and driver error. The company has settled some wrongful-death cases and agreed to pay more than $1 billion (R9.8 billion) to resolve lawsuits where owners said the value of their vehicles plummeted after Toyota's recalls because of sudden-acceleration concerns.
The Uno trial, starting with jury selection on Monday, is expected to last two months. The proceeding represents the first of the bellwether cases in state courts, which are chosen by a judge to help predict the potential outcome of other lawsuits making similar claims.
Other cases expected to go to trial in state courts this year include one in Oklahoma and another in Michigan.
More than 80 cases have been filed in state courts.
The Toyota litigation has gone on parallel tracks in state and federal court with both sides agreeing to settlements so far. A federal judge in Orange County is dealing with both wrongful death and economic loss lawsuits that have been consolidated and is expected to give final approval to the economic loss settlement next week.
Federal lawsuits contend that Toyota's electronic throttle control system was defective and caused vehicles to surge unexpectedly. Plaintiffs' attorneys have deposed Toyota employees, reviewed software code and pored over thousands of documents.
Toyota has denied the allegation and neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor Nasa found evidence of electronic problems.
A trial in one of the lead cases is scheduled for November.
The Uno trial will probably focus on why Toyota didn't have a mechanism to override the accelerator if the accelerator and brake pedals were pressed simultaneously in Camrys sold in the United States, as it did in its EU-market models.
Toyota said Uno's vehicle was equipped with a “state-of-the-art” braking system and denied any defect played a role in her death.
“We are confident the evidence will show that a brake override system would not have prevented this accident,” it said, “and that there was no defect in Mrs Uno's vehicle.”
Legal observers said Uno's attorneys wouldn’t necessarily have to prove what was wrong with the vehicle, but show that the accident could have been prevented with a brake override system.
University of Southern California law professor Gregory Keating said: “If the plaintiff succeeds in convincing a jury it wasn't human error, that it was attributed to the car, I think they have a strong case.”
“Jurors, as drivers, are likely to believe strongly that cars shouldn't become uncontrollable in this way.”
It was nearly four years ago when Uno, who was out grocery shopping and depositing receipts from the restaurant, died after her car went onto a median, struck a telephone pole and then hit a large tree. Witnesses told police they saw Uno swerve to avoid hitting an oncoming truck, according to the lawsuit.
Mardirossian said Uno was a cautious driver and neither floor mats nor driver error were to blame. He said witnesses heard the Camry engine racing and saw brake lights going on and off. Pulling the handbrake had “zero effect,” Mardirossian said.
“Imagine her strapped into her Toyota Camry at 160km/h, knowing the next move would be fatal,” he said. “She saved many lives by veering off into that centre median, knowing that death was near.”
LEXUS IN FLAMES
That same day - 28 August 2009 - off-duty California Highway Patrol officie Mark Saylor and three family members were killed on a suburban San Diego freeway when their 2009 Lexus ES 350 reached speeds of more than 190km/h, collided with a sport utility vehicle, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames. An emergency call captured Saylor's brother-in-law telling the others to pray before the car crashed.
Toyota, which makes the luxury Lexus brand, agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the victims' family for $10 million (R98 million). An inquiry into the crash led to recalls of millions of Toyota vehicles. Investigators said a wrong-size floor mat trapped the accelerator and caused the accident.
The Uno family lawsuit, which claims product liability and negligence, seeks general and punitive damages. Mardirossian said Uno's relatives want to have a jury decide that the crash was not her fault.
“They want to have their loved one's name cleared,” he said. - Sapa-AP