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Toyota Scores Minor Victory In Runup To First Sudden Acceleration Trial

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TOYOTA SANCTIONS
A judge has issued the least severe sanctions possible against Toyota in the runup to a sudden acceleration trial. | Getty Images

Toyota received a minor victory of sorts before the first trial resulting from a sudden acceleration lawsuit, the first of what is expected to be a multitude to make their way through the courts.

The family of 66-year-old Paul Van Alfen, who died in 2010 when his Toyota Camry crashed through a stone wall, claimed that Toyota could have tampered with black box evidence of the crash. A federal judge this week disagreed.

"There is absolutely no evidence that any person engaged in such Machiavellian conduct," wrote Judge James V. Selna of the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California.

The case, Van Alfen v. Toyota Motor Sales, is slated for trial in early 2013 and is one of about 200 lawsuits filed in which drivers or their families have claimed they could not stop their cars because of a vehicle malfunction. In 2009 and 2010, Toyota recalled 8 million vehicles for sudden acceleration problems, a move that many considered a major black eye to the company's reputation for making safe and reliable cars.

Van Alfen's family brought the case after his Toyota sped through an intersection and crashed. The family blames the accident on the car's sudden acceleration -- instead of braking -- after Van Alfen put his foot on the brake pedal. The fiance of Van Alfen's son, Charlene Lloyd, died the day. His wife and son were injured.

Police said they saw skid marks at the crash site indicating Van Alfen had pressed on the brakes while the car accelerated.

Evidence from the car, including a black box recorder that takes note of the vehicle's speed and whether the brakes had been applied, could be crucial in determining what happened.

But attorneys for the Van Alfen family have claimed that Toyota took the black box recorder and downloaded information from it without their permission. That data could have been altered to say whatever Toyota wants, they argued.

Last week Judge Selna said he was considering sanctions against the automaker for handling evidence without the victims' family being present. The sanctions could have been severe enough to shut down the trial, thereby moving to a stage when negotiations would determine how much Toyota would owe the victims' families, perhaps in the millions of dollars.

Instead, Selna opted to give Toyota the least severe penalty -- simply cautioning jurors that some Toyota witnesses may be unreliable. While Toyota representatives should not have touched the vehicle without the victim's attorney being present, there is no hard evidence that they intentionally destroyed evidence or altered readings from the car's black box recorder, Selna wrote.

In an earlier court filing, Toyota had claimed that the car's black box recorder shows that Val Alfen never braked, based on the company's inspection of the car.

The Van Alfen family's attorneys have argued that the car's inspection, done with the cooperation of Toyota, Utah police and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could have resulted in the altering of evidence Lonnie Clark, owner of the garage where the damaged car was taken after the crash, said he witnessed a Toyota technician removing from the car's throttle a piece of plastic, which had propped it open. That could be evidence that something was wrong with the throttle, making it impossible for the car to stop.

Toyota has argued that the plastic piece had not been inside the throttle but lying on top of it. The company's technicians also removed the car's brakes and put them back while inspecting the vehicle, according to Clark, who also claims he overheard them declaring that there was nothing wrong with the car.

In March, CNN reported that Toyota withheld a key document from federal investigators that showed that the carmaker was aware of sudden acceleration issues in one type of car before bringing it to market.

Shinichi Sasaki, an executive vice president of Toyota, wrote in an email that Toyota had colored the truth when claims about sudden acceleration emerged, The Huffington Post reported in January. "I feel that there have been certain statements made, while not entirely untruthful per se, that avoided direct confrontation of the truth," he wrote.

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