Trials in California
In both coordinated proceedings in California, Toyota faces trials.
In the multidistrict litigation, plaintiffs attorneys are moving forward with the second bellwether case, brought on July 8, 2010, by a woman in Columbus, Ga., who suffered spinal fractures after her 2005 Camry accelerated into a column near the door of an elementary school gymnasium.
"She stopped at a stop sign. She looked both ways, and then just as she started to enter the intersection her vehicle suddenly accelerated out of control and went straight onto the property of the elementary school and accelerated through a grove of trees, past a fence and eventually slammed into the school gymnasium," Walburg said. "She clearly testified that she tried to hit the brakes multiple times, and the vehicle would not stop."
The case, which Toyota selected as its top bellwether case, is scheduled for trial on November 4.
The driver, Ida St. John, who was 83 years old at the time of the 2009 accident, has since died, leaving the case in the hands of her estate, according to court documents filed on December 17. Walburg said he is investigating whether St. John's death was tied to injuries she suffered during the crash.
As if to underscore their determination to go to trial, plaintiffs attorneys on February 11 appointed W. Mark Lanier of The Lanier Law Firm in Houston to present the case to a jury. Lanier acknowledged that Toyota handpicked the St. John case for trial. "Toyota has picked cases I'm sure they think they can win," he said. "If they lose, oh my goodness can you imagine if they can't win one of the best cases in the entire world? What will they do when we try a good one?"
Migliore, of Toyota, wrote in her email to the NLJ: "We sympathize with anyone in an accident involving one of our vehicles. However, we look forward to the time when plaintiffs' counsel will be compelled to back up their defect claims with scientifically reliable, admissible proof as opposed to speculative statements. Toyota is confident that no such proof exists and that the evidence will confirm what millions of Toyota drivers prove every day: that they can depend upon their vehicles to provide safe, reliable transportation."
The other case was brought by a man whose wife died after her 2006 Camry accelerated to a speed of 100 miles per hour before crashing into a telephone pole. The case, scheduled for trial on June 12, would be the first in the state court proceeding in California to go before a jury.
The Outlier in Oklahoma
Apart from the coordinated proceedings, Toyota faces litigation in state courts across the country. One of those cases, filed in Oklahoma County, Okla., District Court, is scheduled for trial on October 7. The matter involves a woman from Yukon, Okla., who was injured in 2007 after her vehicle accelerated down an exit ramp and slammed into a culvert. Her friend, a front-seat passenger, died from her injuries soon after the accident.
Lead plaintiff's attorney R. Graham Esdale Jr. said his client, Jean Bookout, tried to apply the brakes. "She left 150 feet of skid marks at the bottom of the exit ramp," said Esdale, a shareholder at Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles in Montgomery, Ala.
Toyota's Migliore wrote: "Again, we sympathize with those in an accident involving one of our vehicles, but we continue to stand fully behind the safety and integrity of Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control System, which multiple independent evaluations have confirmed as safe."
Toyota is represented in this case by James Jennings, founding member of Jennings Cook & Teague in Oklahoma City. Toyota's primary trial team in personal injury and wrongful death cases in California has been led by Vincent Galvin Jr., executive managing partner of Bowman and Brooke's San Jose, Calif., office.