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'Bellwether' Settlement in First of Toyota's Sudden-Acceleration Lawsuits

Toyota settles first wrongful death suit stemming from sudden-acceleration accidents. Hundreds more wrongful death and personal injury cases expected to follow.

A Santa Ana-based federal judge today approved the settlement of a  sudden-acceleration lawsuit against Toyota, which was meant to be the first of hundreds of wrongful death and personal injury cases set to begin next month.

The settlement, dated Dec. 19, was approved by U.S. District Judge James
Selna, according to court records. The terms were not immediately available.

The lawsuit was a ``bellwether'' case meant to lay the groundwork for the other sudden-acceleration claims. Attorneys had been scheduled to appear before Selna on Friday to discuss issues with the Van Alfen family's lawsuit against Toyota Motor Corp., but that hearing was canceled, according to one of the attorneys on the case, Donald Slavik.

Messages left with lead attorney Mark Robinson were not returned Wednesday or Thursday. Toyota officials also did not immediately comment.

Selna had ruled in June that jurors would be instructed to give ``greater caution'' to the testimony of some of the Torrance-based carmaker's witnesses in the trial to punish Toyota for allowing an inspection of the vehicle without an attorney for the victims present.

The case stems from a Nov. 5, 2010, collision that killed 66-year-old Paul Van Alfen and 38-year-old Charlene Lloyd and injured Van Alfen's wife, Shirlene, and their son, Cameron.

Toyota's attorneys argued that the company's representatives at the inspection of Van Alfen's 2008 Camry thought they had the family's consent. The Nov. 19, 2010, inspection included representatives of Toyota, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Utah Highway Patrol, but not the family's attorneys.

Paul Van Alfen was driving the Camry westbound on Interstate 80 when he exited near the Nevada border and the car suddenly accelerated, jumped a curb, veered onto a sidewalk and slammed into a rock wall.

Toyota has blamed the sudden acceleration incidents on sticky accelerator pedals and poorly fitted floor mats. Plaintiffs, however, have alleged Toyota knew of problems with its electronic-throttle control systems and did not fix them with brake-override devices as rival companies did.

The next bellwether trial is scheduled for October, Slavik said.

Selna last month granted preliminary approval of a class-action lawsuit regarding economic losses due to the sudden acceleration claims. The judge has scheduled a June 14 fairness hearing on the $1.3 billion settlement.

 - City News Service

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