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Toyota Seeks To Dismiss Acceleration lawsuits

GREG RISLING   11/19/10 03:02 PM ET   AP

Runaway Prius

SANTA ANA, Calif. — A federal judge in California said Friday he will not dismiss lawsuits against Toyota from car owners who claim sudden-acceleration defects caused the value of the vehicles to plummet.

U.S. District Judge James Selna said in a 63-page ruling that he believes suits filed by car owners who say the value of their vehicles plummetted after a series of recalls by the Japanese automaker can move forward. Selna said he will issue a final ruling within a week.

A hearing over a similar motion to dismiss lawsuits that seek compensation for injury and death due to sudden acceleration will be held in front of Selna on Dec. 9.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed since the automaker starting recalling millions of vehicles because of acceleration problems in several models and brake defects with the Prius hybrid.

Toyota maintains the plaintiffs have been unable to prove that a design defect – namely its electronic throttle control system – is responsible for vehicles surging unexpectedly. It has blamed driver error, faulty floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals for the unintended acceleration.

Toyota attorneys sought to convince Selna that more than two dozen lawsuits should be thrown out because the plaintiffs haven't suffered any economic loss or they haven't spent money to fix their vehicles. Lawyer Cari Dawson noted in several of the suits that Toyota owners continue to drive their vehicles even though they have made allegations against the company.

By allowing the suits to remain, "would open the floodgates in federal court to people who don't have a financial loss," Dawson said. "Their allegations are 'I own a (Toyota) car.'"

Plaintiffs' attorney Steve Berman said outside of court that people who bought Toyota vehicles believed they were buying a safe product and those who didn't experience unintended acceleration still have a claim.

"Our argument is you don't have to wait for the time bomb to go off," he said.

The company has recalled more than 10 million vehicles worldwide over the last year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has received about 3,000 reports of sudden acceleration from Toyota drivers in the past decade, including 93 deaths. The government, however, has confirmed only four deaths from one crash.

In September, the company paid an undisclosed amount to settle a lawsuit with the relatives of four people killed last year in a high-speed crash near San Diego when a driver was unable to stop a runaway Lexus. The incident galvanized attention around possible safety flaws in some Toyota models.

Toyota said in a statement that Selna's tentative ruling required an assumption that the plaintiffs' allegations are true, but as the case progresses, evidence will show that its electronic throttle control system is safe.

"The burden is now squarely on plaintiffs' counsel to prove their allegations and Toyota is confident that no such proof exists," the company said.

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Filed by Nicole Hardesty  |