Lawyers in our firm have been heavily involved in the ongoing litigation against Toyota Motor Corp. This litigation involves claims caused by sudden unintended acceleration in the auto maker’s vehicles. Beasley Allen lawyers are involved in both the “Economic Loss / Consumer Fraud” litigation, as well as the “Personal injury / Wrongful death product liability” claims against the Japanese car manufacturer. As you may remember, Toyota recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide in 2009 and 2010 after reports that sudden unintended acceleration incidents caused crashes with resulting serious injury and death.
Last December, Toyota Motor Corporation announced a $1.1 billion class settlement of the sudden unintended acceleration economic loss class action cases, known as the “EL Cases.” Dee Miles from Beasley Allen was in on the ground floor of that effort to explore the settlement possibilities concerning the EL class cases.
Dee immediately involved the leadership of the Toyota MDL, which had been appointed by Judge James V. Selna in 2010. Steve Berman, Marc Seltzer, Frank M. Pitre, Elizabeth J. Cabraser and Mark P. Robinson, Jr., all appointed to the PSC by Judge Selna, were on that team. Several meetings with Toyota’s lawyers led to one of this nation’s largest automotive consumer settlements ever reached.
Although the economic class cases were settled, the roughly 450 individual personal injury and wrongful death product liability cases remained unresolved. Toyota’s approach had been not to settle those cases and to make the lawyers handling the cases go to trial. Toyota wanted to see how jurors would respond when the cases went to trial.
Fast forward to October 2013, when Cole Portis, Graham Esdale, Ben Baker and I arrived in Oklahoma City, Okla., to represent Jean Bookout and the family of Barbara Schwarz in a lawsuit against Toyota. We had alleged in that case that Toyota designed and manufactured automobiles with defective Electronic Throttle Control Systems. We were convinced that this defect had caused the death of Barbara Schwarz and serious lifetime injuries to Jean Bookout. We tried that case for three weeks.
The Oklahoma jury agreed with us and returned a multi-million dollar compensatory award against Toyota Motor Corporation, finding the company guilty of “reckless indifference to human life.” The case was then to proceed to the punitive damages phase the next day. But before the jury could even hear the punitive damage evidence against Toyota Motor Corporation, we were contacted by Toyota and were able to quickly reach a confidential settlement on the punitive damages aspect and the case was then resolved in its entirety with the total amount of the settlement being confidential at Toyota’s request.
The Bookout/Schwarz jury verdict in Oklahoma was a landmark and monumental verdict in the Toyota sudden unintended acceleration Litigation. We were able to obtain for our clients the first and only jury verdict where Toyota’s throttle system in their vehicles was the sole issue and the jury found it to be defective. In fact, the jurors found that Toyota had been guilty of “reckless conduct” that put customers at risk of injury or death.
Within days of the Bookout/Schwarz verdict, Dee Miles received another phone call from Toyota’s settlement team. This time it concerned the possibility of a global settlement that would resolve all of the personal injury and wrongful death product liability cases. Dee, along with Elizabeth Cabraser and Todd Walburg of the Lieff Cabraser law firm, representing the Plaintiffs, began negotiations with Toyota’s settlement team, which was led by John Hooper of Reed Smith. The goal was to build a settlement structure that would resolve all the Toyota sudden acceleration cases.
The settlement structure has now been approved by Judge Selna in the federal MDL (Multidistrict Litigation) and by Judge Lee Smalley Edmon in the California JCCP (Judicial Counsel Coordination Proceedings, California’s State version of Multidistrict Litigation). Both judges have entered orders requiring the settlement process to begin. All of the pending cases that had been set for trial were stayed. All parties will have to follow the process mandated by the Courts before any case will be allowed to go to trial. The initial response to the settlement process has been very good, both by the Plaintiffs’ lawyers, both in the federal MDL and in the California JCCP, and by Toyota.
While the settlement process will take time, each individual Plaintiff will have an opportunity to have his or her case “front and center” for an unbiased evaluation, with a full consideration of all facts and settlement factors, and with an opportunity for a satisfactory settlement. Lawyers from Beasley Allen have been in the forefront of the Toyota litigation from the inception. The following is a brief timeline of our firm’s involvement:
Hopefully, each of the remaining cases will be settled, and I am reasonably confident that will happen. I don’t believe Toyota can run the risk of taking any more of these cases to trial. Our clients in the Oklahoma case – Jean Bookout and the Schwarz family – are due the credit for trying and winning the case that brought about the proposed global settlement. Their courage and dedication will not only help other victims, but it will help change the entire safety culture at Toyota.
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