Toyota Wants Unintended Acceleration Lawsuits Thrown Out


Citing a lack of an "actual defect" in its vehicles, Toyota asked a federal court Tuesday to dismiss lawsuits seeking damages for economic losses caused by the company's recall of millions of cars to fix problems that may cause them to accelerate uncontrollably.

In a filing with the U.S. District Court of Southern California, Toyota Motor (TM) said the multi-party legal action should be thrown out because plaintiffs have never identified any defect in Toyota's electronic throttle control system (ETCS). Further, many of those suing the automaker haven't claimed to have experienced any episode of unintended acceleration, Toyota said in a statement.

"Toyota looks forward to the time when plaintiffs will finally be compelled to specify exactly what is defective in Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control System," said Cari K. Dawson, an attorney for Toyota in the statement. "More than a year after filing their first complaint, plaintiffs have not identified a defect and are grasping at straws to make their case."

The plaintiffs' lawsuit, should it be allowed to go forward, would permit virtually all owners of Toyota vehicles that have ETCS to sign on to the lawsuit, Toyota said.

"The suggestion that at some undisclosed time in the future, when these plaintiffs might attempt to sell their vehicles, they will suffer some loss legally traceable to a defect that they have never experienced is sheer speculation," the company said in its court filing, Bloomberg News reported.

Millions Recalled

The lawsuit, along with hundreds of others, was filed in the wake of Toyota's recall of about 8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles to make repairs to prevent unintended acceleration. The ongoing action involves two separate recall campaigns: one to repair sticking accelerators, and another to shave down gas pedals to prevent them from getting hung up on heavy rubber floor mats.

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The recalls were the subject of congressional hearings earlier this year and led to a record $16.4 million fine. Toyota has repeatedly denied that there is any other source of the problem, although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has commissioned studies to see if the problem may be caused by electronic interference.

Possible unintended acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles came to the public's attention in September 2009, after a veteran California Highway Patrol officer and three members of his family were killed in a tragic, fiery crash. The loaned Lexus ES 350 sedan they were riding in began accelerating uncontrollably down a San Diego area highway despite the officer's repeated efforts to stop the vehicle.

The vehicle reached speeds of up to 120 mph before crashing and bursting into flames. Surviving family members sued Toyota, and the matter was settled out of court about six weeks ago. Details of the settlement weren't disclosed.

Toyota said its court filing Monday addresses claims made in the plaintiffs' original amended complaint. The automaker is expected to file another response next week to plaintiffs' most recent amended complaint, filed last week.

In the modified lawsuit, those suing the company say the automaker failed to report incidents of unintended acceleration experienced by employees of Toyota dealerships. Plaintiffs also allege that Toyota bought back vehicles from owners who complained of sudden acceleration in exchange for confidentiality agreements barring them from discussing the matter.

Quality Woes

Though the recalls involving unintended acceleration are Toyota's largest this year, they aren't the only safety issues Toyota has had to address. Among others, in February the automaker recalled about 437,000 of its popular Prius hybrid vehicles to repair anti-lock braking systems in 2010 models. Most recently, Toyota recalled some 1.5 million cars and SUVs, including 740,000 in the U.S. to repair master cylinders that may leak brake fluid.

The numerous recalls have taken a toll on Toyota sales in the U.S. Once the nation's No. 2 automaker, Toyota has consistently undersold Ford Motor (F) since March. Toyota, Ford and other automakers will release October sales figures Wednesday.

Later in the week, Toyota will report its latest quarterly earnings. The automaker, the world's largest, is expected to report a profit of 157.5 billion yen ($2 billion), according to a poll of analysts by Thomson Reuters.