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Palm Beach Judge Allows Punitive Damages Increase in Toyota Suit


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    Palm Beach Circuit Court Judge, Meenu Sasser, has agreed to an increase of punitive damages from $15 – $20 million to a potential of $135 – $180 million in the case of Bret Quinlan against Toyota Motor Corp for damages caused in an accident blamed on a faulty acceleration system in his 2001 Toyota Camry.

    The products liability lawsuit in Palm Beach is one of several hundred in federal and state courts that claims Toyota’s electronic throttle-control system was responsible for cars to accelerate without warning.  Quinlan’s accident occurred on July 17, 2011, on State Road 551 in Orlando when his Camry suddenly went out of control and he struck a building.

    At the time of the accident, Quinlan was a student at the University of Central Florida.  Today all he can do is blink his eyes. The spinal cord injury he suffered during the crash left him a quadriplegic in need of constant care.

    A spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. issued a statement offering sympathy to Quinlan but denied the charges. She said, “Multiple independent evaluations have confirmed the safety of Toyota’s electronic throttle control systems, which are equipped with numerous, robust fail-safe systems. Bottom line, there are no real-world scenarios in which Toyota electronics can cause unintended acceleration, and we do not believe a brake override system would have prevented this unfortunate accident.”

    Additionally, the spokeswoman for Toyota said that his vehicle was not covered by company recalls for floor mat entrapment or sticky accelerator pedals.

    Originally when the suit was filed in 2012, Quinlan’s defense claimed spontaneous acceleration as a possible cause for the accident.  But when Toyota denied any acceleration problems, the allegation was dropped. Since then, two acceleration cases involving Toyota cars have been settled.  These cases have allowed the plaintiff’s legal defense to refocus the cause of the accident back to unintended acceleration and given them the opportunity to seek additional punitive damages.

    These cases include:

    • In 2013, an Oklahoma City jury awarded $3 million to76-year-old Jean Bookout. In 2007, she sped out of control as she exited a highway while driving her Toyota Camry. The accident injured her and killed her passenger. This was the first loss for Toyota in a spontaneous acceleration case.
    • In another landmark case, the jury decided to consider punitive damages against Toyota. Before the jurors settled on a specific dollar amount, Toyota settled for an undisclosed sum.

    Toyota Recalls

    Toyota has recalled over 10 million cars related to sudden acceleration. In 2009, 3.5 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles were recalled after it was determined floor mats could jam accelerator pedals. Toyota settled suits for economic losses for around $1.6 billion.

    Attorney for Quinlan said, “The electronic throttle-control problem could have been solved by installing a brake override system for a few dollars – a comparable sum spent to resolve the floor mat issue.”

    March 2014, Toyota entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department and agreed to pay a $1.2 billion fine. Toyota admitted they misled the public by concealing and misspeaking about spontaneous acceleration safety issues.

    What to Expect During Trial

    • Quinlan’s lawyer: “We certainly intend the jury to hear about the admission by Toyota that they committed fraud on the U.S. government by failing to provide information with the purpose of a cover-up related to the acceleration problem”.
    • Toyota’s lawyers: Quinlan’s lawyers “commingled facts related to two admitted [mechanical] defects with those of unsupported allegations of electronics defects.”
    • Judge Sasser: Because of the plaintiff’s claims that Toyota was aware of both the electronic and mechanical issues, but delayed warning the public of the electronic issues in order to protect their own interests,” she wrote, “Such a finding would support punitive damages.” She also wrote that the court may consider Toyota’s evidence refuting Quinlan’s claims on a different motion.

    As the way Florida’s pleading standards stand, a jury may consider the possibility of awarding punitive damages as well as compensatory damages for lifetime care. The case is expected to go to trial in November of this year.

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