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A federal jury in New York has found that Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. was not liable in the first sudden acceleration case to go to trial. The jury rendered its verdict on April 1 following five days of trial in Islip, N.Y., finding that Toyota Motor Sales was not strictly liable because the product in question wasn’t defective. The jury also found for Toyota on related warranty claims. “Toyota is pleased that the jury found no merit to this unintended acceleration claim and refused to accept plaintiff’s expert’s testimony about possible pedal entrapment,” said Celeste Migliore, a spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Corp., the parent corporation of Toyota Motor Sales USA. “We believe that this case sets an important benchmark for unintended acceleration litigation against Toyota across this country, as it clearly demonstrates a plaintiff’s inability to identify, let alone prove the existence of, an alleged electronic defect in Toyota vehicles that could cause unintended acceleration,” she said. The case was brought by Amir Sitafalwalla, who alleged that in 2005, his Scion suddenly surged onto his front lawn, across the driveway and back up a grassy hill, smashing into a tree in his backyard. Sitafalwalla, who suffered fractures to his hand, alleged that his foot was on the brake the entire time and that the floor mat had become entrapped. Sitafalwalla’s lawyer, Albert Zafonte of Albert Zafonte Jr. & Associates in Uniondale, N.Y., said he attributed the jury’s finding to a three-month delay between the time of the accident and photos taken when the car first was inspected. “It’s hard to overcome evidence that doesn’t support your claim because something happened in the interim,” he said. The case became a hot topic in February, when plaintiffs’ lawyers in the multidistrict litigation against Toyota Motor Corp. in Santa Ana, Calif., began to assert that they had been unaware that the trial was impending. The MDL involves more than 200 lawsuits, including personal injury cases, filed against Toyota for sudden acceleration claims. None are expected to go to trial before 2012. Toyota’s lawyers pointed out that the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation had rejected the case for coordination in the MDL. Zafonte insisted that he knew nothing about the MDL until February. But he had some advice for plaintiffs’ lawyers taking on Toyota in future sudden acceleration trials: “They’ll fight you tooth and nail and throw everything at you,” he said. “They have very good lawyers and a bottomless expense account.” Still, Zafonte acknowledged that his case faced several hurdles. The lawsuit originally posited three explanations for the car’s behavior: an electronic failure, floor mat entrapment and Toyota’s failure to install a brake override, he said. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Boyle in the Eastern District of New York precluded him from introducing evidence of problems associated with the electronic throttle control system. “That was never explored, debated or tested because of the preclusion,” Zafonte said. That’s a good lesson for lawyers pursuing electronic defect claims in sudden acceleration lawsuits, he added. “If you don’t have a plausible proof of an electronic malfunction, you may have a hard time getting that in front of a jury with that evidence. Since NHTSA [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] and NASA [the National Aeronautics & Space Administration] as of February were unable to find an electronic defect, they’re going to be hard-pressed to get that issue before a jury.” On Feb. 8, NHTSA released a report finding that unintended acceleration incidents in Toyota vehicles were caused by defective accelerator pedals and entrapped floor mats, but the agency couldn’t conclude that electronic problems played a role. Toyota has recalled nearly 10 million vehicles and paid $48.8 million in regulatory fines associated with defective floor mats and gas pedals. The Scion in Zafonte’s case was not one of the vehicles recalled for defective floor mats – another challenge in presenting his case before a jury, he said. Then there was Toyota’s massive legal team. To handle the trial, Zafonte brought in George Statfeld, a solo practitioner in New York City. “I called George because to go up against Toyota I could use a little help.” Toyota’s lead counsel on the case was Brian Crosby, of Gibson McAskill & Crosby in Buffalo, N.Y. The legal team included Robert Scumaci, also at Gibson McAskill, and John Randolph Bibb, of Nashville, Tenn.’s Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop. Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at [email protected].

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