Lexus Wrongful Death Lawsuit Results in $10M Settlement by Toyota

Toyota Motor Corp. has reportedly paid $10 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a California state trooper and three relatives who died when a Lexus vehicle they were in started accelerating out-of-control. The high profile accident gained national attention and prompted the recall of millions of Toyota and Lexus vehicles due to sudden acceleration problems. 

The Toyota sudden unintended acceleration lawsuit was brought by the family of Mark Saylor, a California Highway Patrol Officer, his wife Cleofe, their 13-year-old daughter Mahala and Cleofe’s brother, Christ Lastrella. All four died when Saylor lost control of a Lexus ES350 given to him as a loaner by a San Diego area Toyota dealer in August 2009.

Although a settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit was reached in September, terms of the deal were not disclosed until last week. An attorney for the San Diego car dealership that loaned Saylor the Lexus revealed the details of the settlement, and Toyota has confirmed the amount.

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During the accident, the Lexus accelerated to speeds as high as 120 m.p.h. before slamming into another vehicle and careening off an embankment. The accident gained national media attention as a result of a 9-1-1 call placed by Lastrella from inside the vehicle while it was accelerating out of control. In addition, witnesses reported that the car’s wheels burst into flames as Mark Saylor stood on the brakes in an attempt to stop the vehicle.

The dealership, Bob Baker Lexus, has maintained that a mechanical problem inherent in some Toyota vehicles caused the accident; a theory maintained by many plaintiffs who have filed lawsuits against the company, but denied by Toyota. Instead, Toyota has pointed the finger back at the dealership, saying the staff incorrectly installed floor mats that got jammed under Saylor’s pedal.

“Mr. Baker now wants the amount publicized in an apparent effort to shift the focus away from his dealership as he continues to litigate this case with the families,” claimed a press statement released by Toyota on December 23. “Mr. Baker and his dealership continue to ignore the December 2009 San Diego County Sheriff’s Department report on the Saylor accident, which determined that the cause was an incompatible all-weather floor mat from a Lexus SUV that was installed incorrectly in the ED 350 sedan at the dealership then loaned to the Saylor family by Bob Baker Lexus.”

According to National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigations, a number of factors played into the fatal accident. First and foremost was the fact that the car, a Lexus ES350, was equipped with thick, all-weather floormats from an RX400h. The mats could not be secured properly and jammed the pedal in the throttle-open position. NHTSA investigators also found that the vehicle’s braking system, which appeared to have been heavily worn before the accident, lost power-assist when the throttle was fully opened. They also found that the gas pedal was not hinged in a way that you could pivot it and easily get it unstuck. 

They also determined that the fact that the Lexus’s push button starting system also factored into the accident. The button has to be held down for three full seconds before the engine will shut down, which Saylor probably did not know. 

Approximately one month after the accident, on September 29, Toyota announced a floor mat recall impacting 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles that contained a certain type of floor mat on the driver’s side that could cause the accelerator to stick.

The revelation of the $10 million settlement will likely make it more difficult for Toyota to settle hundreds of personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits over cases of sudden acceleration. Toyota tried to get many of the cases dismissed, but the company’s efforts failed earlier this month when a federal judge cleared the cases to go forward.

Just days before the amount of the settlement was released, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that Toyota was being fined $32.4 million as the result of two federal investigations into how it handled unintended acceleration recalls and steering rod defects. Government investigators say the company stalled on the recalls and failed to notify federal safety officials about the problems in a timely manner. The fines are the maximum allowed by law.

About 400 Toyota personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits have been centralized and consolidated under Judge James V. Selna for pretrial proceedings in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Santa Ana as part of a multidistrict litigation (MDL). All of the lawsuits contain allegations that drivers or passengers experienced an injury or death after their Toyota vehicles accelerated unexpectedly out of control. The court has christened the alleged defect “Sudden Unintended Acceleration”, or SUA.

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