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A government report finding no electronic defects in Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles will mean little for the more than 200 lawsuits pending over sudden acceleration claims, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers handling those cases. In the report, released on Feb. 8 by the U.S. National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA), government engineers found that the unintended acceleration incidents in Toyota vehicles were due not to electronic problems, but rather to mechanical defects — specifically, to accelerator pedals that stuck to the floor and floor mats that got trapped. Toyota has recalled 8 million vehicles and paid $48.8 million in civil penalties due to those defects. “We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics systems, and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a prepared statement. Early on, plaintiffs’ lawyers had asserted that the cause of some acceleration problems was rooted in the electronic throttle control systems in the cars, rather than mechanical defects. The government’s finding to the contrary didn’t dampen that argument, however. Steve Berman, managing partner of Seattle’s Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, co-lead counsel on the plaintiffs’ steering committee for the economic class actions in the multidistrict litigation (MDL) against Toyota, said the report’s findings were in “stark contrast” to what Toyota drivers have experienced, even after the recalls. “There are too many reports of runaway events in vehicles with the pedal and floor mat ‘fix’ to eliminate other causes such as electronic throttle control,” Berman said in a prepared statement. “Already there are those who are asking tough questions about the report’s methodology. We are just now reviewing the documents, but anticipate there will be a healthy debate concerning the ways NHTSA arrived at its conclusions, especially amid the number of [unintended acceleration] events experienced by so many drivers.” Donald Slavik, an attorney in Steamboat Springs, Colo., who serves on the plaintiffs’ steering committee overseeing the personal injury and wrongful death cases in the MDL, called the report a “minor bump” in the litigation. He said it was not admissible in court and not subject to cross-examination. But he acknowledged that the report could sway potential jurors. “It has publicity value is what it has,” said Slavik, who recently joined Newport Beach, Calif.-based Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson, where senior partner Mark Robinson is co-lead counsel in the personal injury and wrongful death cases in the MDL. He predicted that during the next hearing, on Feb. 25, Toyota’s lawyers would bring a copy of the report, “waving it around claiming they’ve been exonerated.” Toyota released a statement about the study: “We believe this rigorous scientific analysis by some of America’s foremost engineers should further reinforce confidence in the safety of Toyota and Lexus vehicles,” said Steve St. Angelo, chief quality officer for North America. “We hope this important study will help put to rest unsupported speculation about Toyota’s [electronic throttle control system], which is well-designed and well-tested to ensure that a real world, un-commanded acceleration of the vehicle cannot occur.” NHTSA, at the request of Congress, which held hearings on the recalls, began its review in March. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) engineers analyzed 280,000 lines of software code for potential flaws and conducted various tests at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland; NHTSA’s Vehicle Research and Test Center in East Liberty, Ohio; and in a special facility in Michigan. “NASA found no evidence that a malfunction in electronics caused large unintended accelerations,” Michael Kirsch, principal engineer at the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, said in a prepared statement. Despite finding no fault with the electronics in Toyota vehicles, NHTSA said it would begin researching the reliability and security of electronic control systems as well as the placement and design of accelerator and brake pedals. The agency also announced new rules requiring brake override systems, standardized operation of keyless ignition systems and installation of event data recorders in all vehicles by the end of 2011. Berman highlighted the report’s recommendation on brake-override systems. Many plaintiffs’ attorneys have asserted that Toyota should have installed such systems in its cars. “Had Toyota included a brake-override system, as have other manufacturers, it is clear to us that the company could have prevented a series of well-documented accidents and fatalities,” he said. “We continue to hold our position that consumers would have been much better served if the company admitted its design defect and installed a brake-override system as soon as it learned of the problems of [sudden unintended acceleration].” Todd Tracy of The Tracy Firm in Dallas said the lack of a brake-override system would be a key argument in a case he’s taking to trial on June 3 in Marshall, Texas. The case is not part of the MDL or a related multidistrict proceeding pending in Houston for sudden acceleration lawsuits filed in Texas state courts. That case involves a 2007 Lexus ES that wouldn’t stop even after the driver applied the brake. “If you don’t have all the parameters in place, of course your testing is going to be flawed,” he said. “What we’re saying is, ‘Who cares what causes the [sudden acceleration]?’ We all know it’s happening. But a brake override would eliminate it. That’s how we’re headed on this trial.” In a press release, Tracy questioned NASA’s expertise, noting that the agency failed to identify the defects that caused two space shuttle disasters. “NASA engineering has been responsible for shoddy designs that have delayed and jeopardized the space program for the better part of two decades,” he said. “They are the last people that we want poking around under the hood of Toyota’s vehicles looking for answers to a deadly problem.” A second study by the Department of Transportation and an independent panel of scientific experts at the National Academy of Sciences on unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls is due later this year.   Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at [email protected].

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