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Toyota acceleration trial focuses on what Toyota didn't do

Craig McClellan

The Los Angeles Superior Court heard opening statements last week in a landmark Toyota acceleration trial. Unlike previous litigation, the argument the plaintiffs are making in this defect case is that Toyota failed to install a safety device.

The plaintiffs lost their loved one, Noriko Umo, in a 2009 accident. Umo was driving when her heel became stuck to the gas pedal. In an attempt to stop her car from accelerating, she tried, unsuccessfully, to hit the brake with her left foot. For 2,600 feet, Umo swerved around traffic, eventually hitting a telephone pole and tree. Umo lost her life because of this case of unintended acceleration.

While Toyota attempts to show that the car accident was her own fault, Umo's attorney will explain to jurors that this accident never had to happen had Toyota installed an important safety system on its 2006 Toyota Camry. Brake override systems, which force the brakes to override accelerators when both are depressed, are common in automobiles and were even installed on some of Toyota's vehicles in other countries at the time Toyota manufactured Umo's vehicle. Unfortunately, the auto manufacturer didn't think it necessary to include this safety system on U.S. cars.

Can Toyota be held accountable for failing to install this safety system? As the plaintiffs' attorney points out, "Toyota knew for many years that stuck pedals are a phenomenon with its vehicles."

The resolution of this trial, which could last through October, will set the stage for other unintended acceleration cases against Toyota and other auto manufacturers. The question at issue -- whether Toyota is responsible for not installing a safety system -- is unique among other Toyota unintended acceleration cases. Toyota has agreed to settle many of those cases for millions of dollars. In each of those cases, Toyota has refused to admit that its cars or car parts were defective.