A court filing by Toyota earlier this week lays out how the automaker plans to defend itself against sudden acceleration claims: by blaming the drivers.
Toyota is facing nearly 200 lawsuits claiming that unintended acceleration caused accidents and deaths in 2009 and 2010. The first of these suits to go through courts comes from the family of Paul Van Alfen, a Utah man who crashed into a stone wall after exiting Interstate 80 in 2010. He died at the scene of the crash and his soon-to-be daughter-in-law died the following day. His son and wife survived the crash and told police that Van Alfen tried to brake but couldn't.
This week Toyota told the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, Calif., that the black box recorder on Van Alfen's 2008 Toyota Camry shows that the driver never pushed the brake. "Any injuries to the Plaintiffs caused by the crash were caused in whole or in part by Paul Van Alfen's actions," says Toyota attorney Vincent Galvin in the court filing, first reported by the National Law Journal.
This could point to a shift in strategy for Toyota, which surprised industry watchers in January 2010 by admitting that mechanical problems with gas pedals caused some cars to accelerate when drivers weren't intending for this to happen. Toyota issued two recalls in 2009 and in 2010, and arrived at a settlement in at least one case.
This line of argument may well serve as its legal defense strategy for approaching the costly litigation process for the scores of remaining cases, especially for those filed after the recall was announced. Toyota's defense in the Van Alfen case is more in line with the standard industry line first used by Audi in response to sudden acceleration claims in the 1980s. Then, about 1,000 people complained their Audi 5000s surged out of control, resulting in 175 injuries and four deaths.
At the time Audi said the problem was the car's design, which led drivers to press on the gas pedal when they thought they were pressing on the brake. Essentially, the company blamed driver error. Audi fixed the problem by moving the brake pedal farther away from the gas pedal and making it impossible to put the car into drive without first pressing on the brake. In 1989, a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seemed to confirm Audi's explanation, saying that most unintentional acceleration happened because drivers hit the gas instead of the brakes.
There is still time for the Toyota lawyers and Van Alfen's lawyers to further lay out their arguments in the case. Toyota says its court filing this week was intended to assert that there was a system in place that could have shut down the accelerator if the driver were to press on the brake, but that Van Alfen did not have that system installed.
"While we sympathize with anyone in an accident involving one of our vehicles, our filing was intended to show that there is no basis to the claim that the lack of brake override ... was a cause of the Van Alfen accident," said Celeste Migliore, a Toyota spokeswoman. She did not want to comment on whether Van Alfen stepped on the brakes, she said.
Toyota's black box evidence may seem irrefutable, but black boxes in cars are not like those in airplanes, explained Mukul Verma, an auto consultant with the accident reconstruction firm MP Holcomb. They record only a few seconds of data before a crash, Verma told The Huffington Post. Airplane accident investigators can essentially reconstruct an accident from the data they recover from a black box, but car accident investigators need to rely on other data, like skid marks, evidence on the vehicle and eyewitness reports, he added.
"I would not be willing, just based on what the black box says, to dismiss the possibility the driver used his brakes," Verma said.
Police said there were skid marks leading up to the scene of Van Alfen's Nov. 5, 2010 crash.
Skid marks on a dry road could indicate the driver was braking, Verma said.
The Van Alfen case is scheduled to go to trial in February 2013.
In all, Toyota recalled about 8 million vehicles for two different sudden acceleration causes. It paid $10 million to settle the case of one California family: An off-duty police officer crashed into a ravine while one of the passengers called 911. All four people in the car died.
This story was updated at 8:20 p.m. to provide more context about Toyota's recalls.