DETROIT/NEW YORK -- Toyota Motor Corp. wasn't responsible for causing a doctor's 2005 Scion to suddenly accelerate and smash into a tree, a federal jury in Central Islip, New York, ruled Friday.
The accident was caused by the driver, Amir Sitafalwalla, rather than the floor mat, said a lawyer for Toyota, John Randolph Bibb Jr., in his closing statement Friday. Sitafalwalla "made a mistake in the operation of his 2005 Scion TC," Bibb told jurors. "He made a simple but unfortunate mistake."
The jury deliberated for less than an hour. "It was all about how the mat came into play and obviously it didn't," juror Penny Overbeck, 38, of Center Moriches, New York, said after the verdict. She said her vote was also influenced by "all the testing Toyota did. They had it all on video. It pretty much explained it."
Toyota, the world's largest automaker, recalled millions of U.S. vehicles, starting in 2009, for defects related to sudden unintended acceleration. Sitafalwalla, a Long Island, New York, doctor who filed his lawsuit in 2008, had the first case related to the issue to go to trial since the recalls.
Sitafalwalla, 59, had argued the accident was caused by defects in either the electronic throttle system or the floor mats. On March 29, U.S. Magistrate Judge E. Thomas Boyle, presiding over the trial, ruled out evidence on the electronics.
Due to its design, "it's just not physically possible" for the Scion TC's floor mat "to entrap the accelerator pedal," Bibb, of Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop PC in Nashville, Tennessee, told jurors Friday.
"We weighed all the evidence and came to the conclusion that there was not a defect with the automobile," said Regina Desio of Plainview, New York, the jury forewoman. She declined to give her age.
Albert Zafonte Jr., a lawyer for Sitafalwalla, said he was "disappointed in the verdict. I thought there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find otherwise." Both he and co-counsel George Statfeld said they would have to consider whether to appeal.
Zafonte said in his closing statement that a defect in the design and distribution of the mat system caused the accident. The design allowed the mat to shift onto the accelerator pedal, Zafonte said. Toyota also failed to install a brake-override system that would have prevented the accident and was available on the 2005 Prius, he said.
The jury found Toyota wasn't liable for product liability concerning either the mat or the absence of a brake-override system.
"Toyota is pleased that the jury found no merit to this unintended acceleration claim and refused to accept plaintiff's expert's testimony about possible pedal entrapment by the Scion's floor mat," Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore said in an e-mail statement. "We believe that this case sets an important benchmark for unintended acceleration litigation against Toyota across this country, as it clearly demonstrates a plaintiff's inability to identify, let alone prove the existence of, an alleged electronic defect in Toyota vehicles that could cause unintended acceleration," she said.
Toyota is facing hundreds of lawsuits claiming lost vehicle value or personal injuries caused by incidents of sudden unintended acceleration. Sitafalwalla, an emergency room physician, was injured in the 2005 accident in the driveway of his Port Washington, New York, home, according to the complaint.
Toyota began a series of recalls in September 2009, announcing that 3.8 million vehicles were being recalled because of a defect that may cause floor mats to jam down the accelerator pedal. In January 2010, the company recalled 2.3 million vehicles to fix sticking gas pedals. Sitafalwalla's vehicle wasn't among those recalled. The carmaker, based in Toyota City, Japan, said in February that it's recalling another 2.17 million vehicles in the U.S. for carpet and floor-mat flaws that could jam gas pedals.
The recalls set off a wave of litigation, including suits by Toyota owners claiming alleged defects leading to sudden acceleration cost a massive loss in the value of their vehicles and claims by individuals or their families of injuries and deaths caused by such incidents. Most of the federal lawsuits were combined before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana, California, who is organizing the litigation and overseeing pre-trial evidence-gathering, or discovery.
Selna has been pushing to have the first cases before him go to trial in early 2013. Sitafalwalla's suit, which was filed before the recalls, wasn't sent to Selna. Many of the lawsuits claim that loose floor mats and sticky pedals don't explain all episodes of sudden acceleration and that the electronic throttle system in Toyota vehicles is to blame.
Toyota has disputed any flaws in its electronic throttle control system. In February, NASA, the U.S. space agency, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said their probe of possible electronics defects found no causes for unintended acceleration other than sticking accelerator pedals and floor mats that jammed the pedals.