Lawyers have taken unintended-acceleration cases to trial on a variety of theories, including pedal placement and lack of brake override, but have not had much success in arguing that electronic gremlins inhabit the vehicle and that the driver was correctly pressing the brake. Has their luck changed with an Oklahoma jury’s new verdict? The Japanese automaker doesn’t seem to want to take chances, and promptly settled the case, represented on the plaintiff’s side by Montgomery, Ala.’s Beasley Allen. [National Law Journal, The Truth About Cars; Peter Huber on the Audi scare a quarter-century ago] Commenter at TTAC: “I’d like to see this happen with a jury of engineers.” More: Mass Tort Prof.
“A jury cleared Toyota Motor Corp. of liability Thursday in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a Southern California woman killed in a 2009 crash that occurred amid widespread reports of unintended acceleration involving Toyota vehicles.” Despite regular hints in places like the Los Angeles Times that undetected electronic defects might be to blame for sudden acceleration, lawyers for Uno’s family went to trial on the more prosaic theory that Toyota was wrong not to have included a brake override system in the car as an added help to drivers who might be unable to correct a depressed gas pedal. A jury disagreed. [AP/NBC Los Angeles; L.A. Times]
Until that story [on the silicone breast implant episode], I’d always taken the liberal view of plaintiffs’ lawyers as avenging angels, righting wrongs and helping wrest compensation for people who had been harmed by greedy corporations. …
[Since then] I’ve seen mass torts where the actual plaintiffs get coupons while the lawyers reap millions. Mass torts where the connection between the product and the harm is illusory. Mass torts built on fraud (silicosis). Complex litigation settled for billions even when the government implies that consumers are responsible (Toyota sudden acceleration). I’ve also seen cases where some victims hit the jackpot with a giant jury verdict and other victims come up empty. Or where a corporation really has done harm but pays off the lawyers instead of the victims. Over the years, I’ve thought: There’s got to be a better way.
The bogus Toyota sudden-acceleration scandal, fed by credulous media and hungry lawyers, has now cost the Japanese automaker upwards of one billion dollars on paper in settlements, despite the lack of an actual mechanical basis for the claims. (The “on paper” is a necessary qualifier because class action settlements typically fall short of transferring the actual sums declared) Yet many more lawsuits remain unsettled, including one nearing trial alleging that the automaker was negligent in not installing a system that cuts off accelerator power when the brake pedal is depressed. Whatever their value as a gesture of reassurance, such systems are of no help whatsoever in the actual sudden-acceleration accidents that typically make it to court, in which drivers mistakenly believe themselves to be pressing the brake when their foot is actually on the accelerator. [L.A. Times, whose coverage as usual disappoints]
P.S. National Law Journal coverage of pending trial:
“The heart of the mass tort was always the electronic throttle control. The fact that the first trial is going and not bringing that theory is interesting,” said Byron Stier, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in mass tort litigation. “Look how far that is from the original panic of this.”
- What could go wrong? “Moving into F.B.I. turf, local police are assembling databases of DNA records” [NYTimes, earlier here, here, and here]
- Toyota pays Orange County D.A. $16M to go away: $4M to locally influential attorney Robinson and friends, $8M to… gang prevention?! [NLJ]
- Mt. Holly: “Supreme Court Takes Up Challenge To Disparate-Impact Discrimination Theory” [housing; Daniel Fisher, Forbes]
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- The other day the editorialists of the New York Times sat down and wrote that “there is no persuasive evidence of any significant fraud or abuse” in asbestos claiming. Yes, they actually wrote that. In 2013. Paging Lester Brickman!
- Supreme Court: feds can’t require beneficiaries of overseas grant programs to sign pledge to oppose legalizing prostitution [Ilya Shapiro] “How Calling Sex Work ‘Human Trafficking’ Hurts Women” [Cathy Reisenwitz, Sex and the State, more]
- “The utterly frivolous and offensive complaint against the honorable Judge Edith Jones” [@andrewmgrossman on this Andrew Kloster piece, earlier here and here]
- Tel Aviv: “City Workers Paint Handicap Space Around Car, Then Tow It” [Lowering the Bar]
- Editorial writer has some generous comments about my work on excessive litigation. Thanks! [Investors Business Daily]
- Nuisance payment: Toyota will throw $29 million at state attorneys general who chased bogus sudden acceleration theory [Amanda Bronstad, NLJ]
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- Was there ever an economics textbook to beat Alchian and Allen? R.I.P. extraordinary economist Armen Alchian, whose microeconomics introductory course for grad students I was fortunate to take long ago [Cafe Hayek, David Henderson, more, more, more, Bainbridge]
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- “Cato Named America’s Most Effective Think Tank Per Dollar Spent” [Dan Mitchell, Nick Rosenkranz]
- Disappointing: Transportation Sec. LaHood said to be “sticking around for a while” [Roads and Bridges, earlier] That was quick: only hours later, he says he’s leaving after all [WaPo]
- It became necessary to destroy the sex workers in order to save them [Melissa Gira Grant/Reason]
- Profile of lefter-than-thou NY attorney general Eric Schneiderman [NY Mag]
- As rural pub tradition declines, Irish government rejects proposal to ease DUI laws [AP]
- The late John O’Quinn was an Overlawyered regular: “Ex-clients’ complaint vs silicosis lawyers is catalog of misconduct” [Alison Frankel, Reuters; Ted Frank, Point of Law] More: Houston Chronicle, SE Texas Record, ABA Journal, JD Journal.
- “How Lawsuits Killed an American Icon” [Rocky Flick, CEO, on closure of Blitz gas can plant in Oklahoma; U.S. Chamber’s Faces of Lawsuit Abuse, auto-plays video; earlier here, here, here]
- “Angelos seeks to revive more than 13,000 asbestos cases” [Baltimore Sun] Virginia is latest state to wrestle with asbestos causation standard [David Oliver] Asbestos forum-shopping alive and well in Madison County, Ill., with record-breaking 1,563 cases filed last year [Chamber-backed Madison County Record]
- More on why Toyota settled dubious acceleration case [Michael Krauss, earlier]
- Alabama rules brand-name drug manufacturer can be held liable for generic version’s lack of a warning [Weeks v. Wyeth; Meghan McCaffrey, Weil Gotshal Product Liability Monitor; Morrison Foerster client alert; Michael Krauss] Standards of causation in pharmaceutical cases haven’t been loosened as far as in asbestos [Beck, Drug & Device Law]
- From Judge Gladys Kessler, another sweeping ruling against tobacco companies [Brian Wolfman, CL&P]
- In the coming era of driverless cars, better to empower a robotic “intersection controller,” or rely on intelligence distributed among the individual vehicles? [Mickey Kaus, Jack Baruth/Truth About Cars, E.W. Niedermeyer first, second]
- U.S. v. I.E.V.: “Annals of Tremendously Entertaining Alex Kozinski Opinions” [Kyle Graham] Judge Kozinski on video [Above the Law]
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- Andrew Trask picks 2012’s ten most significant class action cases and interesting class action articles;
- “I’m quite certain no adults need Patrick Kennedy – of all people – dictating what substances they’re allowed to consume.” [Glenn Greenwald]
- U.S. Chamber annual worst-lawsuits list [and DC Examiner editorial] Family of Little League teen sued by spectator hit by ball is grateful for public support [Manchester, N.J. Patch, earlier]
- “Boy, 6, suspended from Silver Spring school for pointing finger like a gun” [WaPo, followup (school reverses), Tim Lynch/Cato] Lenore Skenazy nominates the craziest Free-Range stories of 2012;
- Toyota’s $1.1 B class action pact will encourage future shakedowns [Michael Krauss/PoL, Public Citizen]
We now know that the panicky tales of electronics-driven sudden acceleration in Toyotas, as urged on the nation by trial lawyer allies like Clarence Ditlow and Joan Claybrook, were sheerest fantasy. That’s no real surprise, since earlier reports of mechanically arising sudden acceleration in Audis and other brands of automobile (also urged on the nation by Ditlow et al.) proved equally imaginary.
But the media never learns, and if they don’t, why should the government? So the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing a rule that would require all auto designs to include “override” systems which shut off the accelerator if the brake is pressed. This will have no effect at all on typical “sudden acceleration” accidents, which arise from drivers’ hitting the wrong pedal, since those drivers already imagine themselves to be hitting the brake. They will have little if any effect on the extremely rare floor mat entrapment cases in which an accelerator gets trapped in the depressed position, because drivers can already overcome such acceleration by pressing the brake pedal if it is available, while if it is not available because of mats or other obstructions, the efficacy of the override may fall short of what is hoped.
But at least the government will be able to say that it did something.
I did find it interesting in the Washington Post account that Ditlow seems for the moment to have joined the rest of us in agreeing that pedal misapplication is the big cause of these accidents, the better to afford him a vantage point to criticize NHTSA for Not Doing Enough on that front. That’s quite a change from what you hear from him at the height of these panics, when he tends to talk up every possible cause of unwanted acceleration other than driver error. When the next sudden-acceleration panic breaks out, I fully expect CAS to be back pitching the electronics theories again.
P.S. Plaintiff’s lawyer and longtime Overlawyered favorite Steve Berman asserts that there have been “thousands of crashes, hundreds of deaths,” a claim the National Law Journal’s Amanda Bronstad relays without skeptical comment.