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Toyota moves to dismiss class action suit, pointing to NASA study

February 17, 2011 |  1:12 pm

Toyota HQ Toyota Motor Corp. is using a new NASA study finding no fault with its electronics as evidence that a sudden acceleration class action suit against it should be dismissed. 

In a filing in federal court in Santa Ana this week, the automaker argued that the study, conducted at the behest of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and released Feb. 8, is proof that its vehicles have no defects and the lawsuits are therefore without merit.

"Plaintiffs are chasing a phantom theory of defect that only last week NASA and
NHTSA, after an extensive investigation, jointly confirmed does not exist," Toyota outside counsel Lisa Gilford wrote in a motion filed on Feb. 14.

She asked judge James Selna to dismiss the suit, which consolidates scores of claims from Toyota and Lexus owners alleging that the presence of defects in their vehicles negatively affected the value of their vehicles. News of the filing was first published by the National Law Journal.

This is the second time Toyota has sought dismissal of the economic damages suit. In November, judge Selna refused to drop the allegations based on the evidence present by Toyota at the time; in December he also turned down a motion by Toyota to dismiss personal injury and death claims related to sudden acceleration claims.

By holding up the NASA and NHTSA reports in court, Toyota is showing an aggressive push to use the government's research into sudden acceleration not only to clear its name with the public but also to climb out from under its legal problems as well.

Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore declined to comment on the company's legal strategy, but pointed to the plaintiffs' “continued inability to provide a coherent theory of an alleged defect and their blatant attempts to shift the focus of this case" as important developments.

The NASA probe, unvelied by Transporation Secretary Ray LaHood last week, focused on nine Toyota vehicles over a period of 10 months, finding no electronic defects that could cause unintended acceleration.

And although it stopped short of clearing the automaker, pointing to what it called mechanical defects that can cause acceleration problems, the news was widely interpreted as a vindication. (Toyota has issued two recalls to address the defects, for floor mats that can entrap the gas pedal and for sticking accelerator pedals.)

On its newsroom site, the automaker hailed the findings, saying they "should further reinforce confidence in the safety of Toyota and Lexus vehicles," and its stock price has risen nearly 6% since the reports were released.

Judge Selna's consideration of the motion to dismiss will be an early test of whether the study will have a similarly positive influence for Toyota in the courtroom.

Steve Berman, co-lead counsel in the economic damages suits, points out that government studies, such as National Transporation Safety Board reports on airplane crashes, are almost never admitted as evidence in court because the facts are in dispute. He said he would oppose admitting the NASA and NHTA reports on the same grounds.

"I don't think it will be admissable," said Berman. He said the report is "a contested issue" rather than proven fact, and that he does not agree with either the findings or the methodology of the government studies.

One of his specific complaints was that the study is heavily redacted, making it difficult for his researchers to understand how the research was conducted. Berman said that he wrote Toyota this week asking it for an unredacted copy but has not yet heard back.

Even if the NASA and NHTSA findings hold up, plaintiff attorneys argue that Toyota still could be on the hook for the lack of a brake override feature in its vehicles, which is designed to prevent sudden acceleration in cars with electronic throttle.

That technology has been employed by other automakers, including Nissan and Volkswagen, for years, but Toyota did not begin adopting it until last year.

Toyota attorney Gilford, in her filing this week, addressed that argument, saying it "conveniently ignores a host of other fail-safes and disingenuously suggests that a brake override system was somehow an industry standard."

A hearing to review the dismissal motion is scheduled for April 29, court filings show.

--Ken Bensinger

Photo: Toyota headquarters in Torrance, Calif. Credit: Toyota Motor Corp.