Judge in Sudden-Acceleration Lawsuit Punishes Toyota

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CITY NEWS SERVICE

SANTA ANA — When jurors in a Santa Ana federal courtroom next year consider the evidence in the first trial against Toyota regarding sudden-acceleration problems, the judge overseeing the case will advise jurors to give “greater caution” to the testimony of some of the Torrance-based carmaker’s witnesses.

U.S. District Judge James Selna ruled June 11 he will punish Toyota for allowing an inspection of the vehicle, which is the subject of the first wrongful death lawsuit, without an attorney for the victims present.

Judge James Selna

The first wrongful death lawsuit slated to go to trial stems from a Nov. 5, 2010, collision that killed 66-year-old Paul Van Alfen and 38-year-old Charlene Lloyd and injured Van Alfen’s wife, Shirlene, and their son, Cameron.

The case is the first of the “bellwether” trials involving injuries related to runaway vehicles.

Toyota’s attorneys have argued the company’s representatives at the inspection of the Van Alfen’s 2008 Camry thought they had the family’s consent.

“It is clear that Toyota understood it was in a pre-litigation phase when it inspected the Van Alfen vehicle,” Selna said in his ruling. “It is equally clear that Toyota understood that the Van Alfen family was represented by counsel.”

Still, the inspection went on without an attorney for the family, Selna said. The inspection included representatives of Toyota, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Utah Highway Patrol.

“These facts alone cast a cloud of suspicion over the Nov. 19, 2010, inspection,” he said.

The judge stopped short of imposing the toughest of sanctions sought by plaintiffs’ attorneys, which include default judgment for the plaintiffs, leaving open only the question of damages.

Selna also declined to keep Toyota from introducing some evidence at trial.

The judge, however, said he has not yet ruled out whether to shift the burden or proof from the plaintiffs to the defense.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the inspection could have led to the tainting of some evidence that can be obtained from an event data recorder in the vehicle.

Selna said he will fashion a jury instruction advising jurors to give “greater caution” to the testimony of Toyota’s witnesses at the inspection.

That jury instruction will also apply to any evidence about a piece of plastic found lodged in the throttle body opening keeping the engine valve open.

Paul Van Alfen was driving a 2008 Toyota Camry westbound on Interstate 80 when he exited near the Nevada border and the car suddenly accelerated, jumped a curb, veered onto a sidewalk and slammed into a rock wall.

An expert for the plaintiffs has said in depositions that removing the event data recorder from the vehicle during the inspection could have allowed someone to alter the information. Selna said there is no evidence something that “Machiavellian” happened.

Toyota’s attorneys have insisted none of the crash data has been altered.

Tools used to read the data recorder’s information showed differing speeds for Van Elfen’s Camry before the collision, said Mark Robinson, an attorney leading the wrongful death and personal injury cases. The data recorder’s information was downloaded during the November 2010 inspection and in April of this year.

Toyota attorney Vince Galvin said at a May 30 hearing before Selna that could be attributed to two different tools used for the data recorder.

Another dispute involves the piece of plastic found in the car’s throttle.

Lonnie Clark, an owner of the auto shop in Utah where the car was inspected in November 2010, said in a February deposition that he was alarmed when a Toyota technician removed the piece of plastic wedged in the throttle, and shouted not to move anything in the engine.

Clark said the technicians used pliers to remove the piece of plastic propping open the throttle. Toyota’s technicians, however, say they found it on the closed throttle valve and photographed it before putting it back where it was.

Toyota has filed an opinion from expert Michael James, who believes the piece of plastic was “crash debris” that “has nothing to do with the crash.”

Efforts to reach Toyota officials after business hours were not immediately successful.

Toyota issued a statement after the May 30 hearing calling the plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions “baseless and desperate.”

“This motion by plaintiffs’ counsel should be seen for what it is: a baseless and desperate effort to dismiss clear and convincing evidence that devastates their case,” the statement reads. “This transparent attempt to raise doubts about the vehicle inspection process by fabricating a continuous steam of demonstrably false and misleading theories is entirely without merit. Toyota has clearly shown that the evidence at issue was appropriately preserved and that there was no corruption of the data from the vehicle’s event data recorder.”

In the past, Toyota has blamed the sudden acceleration incidents on sticky accelerator pedals and poorly fitted floor mats. Plaintiffs have alleged Toyota knew of problems with its electronic throttle-control systems and did not fix them with brake-override devices as rival companies did.

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