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Toyota settles suit over California crash for $10 million


Toyota Motor Corp President Akio Toyoda attends an unveiling of the company's redesigned compact car "Vitz" in Yokohama, south of Tokyo December 22, 2010. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Toyota Motor Corp President Akio Toyoda attends an unveiling of the company's redesigned compact car "Vitz" in Yokohama, south of Tokyo December 22, 2010. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Toyota has agreed to pay $10 million to settle legal claims from the family of a California state trooper and three relatives whose fatal car wreck helped spark the automaker's wide-ranging safety recall, lawyers said on Thursday.

The family's lawsuit, filed in March in San Diego Superior Court, was part of a wave of product-liability and wrongful-death actions brought against Toyota Motor Corp and subsidiaries over complaints of sudden, unintended acceleration in its vehicles.

But the fiery August 28, 2009, crash near San Diego of a Lexus ES 350 sedan driven by off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor drew intense media attention and renewed government scrutiny of safety problems leading to the recall of over 6.5 million Toyota vehicles in the United States.

Those recalls in 2009 and 2010 were ordered by Toyota for repairs of ill-fitting floor mats that can jam the accelerator and for gas pedals that did not spring back as designed.

The amount of the Saylor settlement had been kept confidential since it was reached in September. But ruling in favor of the media and others, the judge on Monday ordered the sum made public, and two lawyers connected with the case revealed the amount to Reuters before a non-redacted version of the settlement documents could be filed in court.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating reports that as many as 89 crash deaths since 2000 may be linked to sudden, unintended acceleration in Toyotas and the company's luxury-line Lexus vehicles.

But the circumstances of the Saylor crash stood out, even to Toyota President Akio Toyoda, grandson of the founder of the Japanese automaker, who extended his condolences to the Saylor family in an apology he delivered to a congressional hearing in February.

According to the lawsuit, Saylor was driving his wife, their 13-year-old daughter and his brother-in-law on a family outing when their car "began to accelerate on its own" and sped out of control despite Saylor's attempts "to apply the brakes and otherwise do everything possible to stop" the car.

CHILLING CALL FOR HELP CAUGHT ON TAPE

The vehicle reached speeds of up to 120 miles per hour before it struck another vehicle, plowed through a fence, hit a berm and flew through the air, then rolled several times into a field and burst into flames.

The family's final moments before impact were captured in the recording of a frantic 911-emergency cell phone call placed by Saylor's brother-in-law, Christopher Lastrella, in which he is heard telling the dispatcher, "Our accelerator is stuck ... We're in trouble ... there is no brakes."

Others in the car are heard saying, "hold on" and "pray" as the call ended.

San Diego County Sheriff's investigators concluded the crash likely was caused by the gas pedal becoming stuck in an all-weather rubber floor mat designed for a larger vehicle but placed by the Lexus dealership in the sedan loaned to Saylor.

But the accident report said "other avenues of unintended acceleration could not be explored," mechanical or electrical, due to catastrophic damage to the vehicle.

The report also revealed that another driver who had been loaned the same car a few days earlier told investigators the vehicle raced out of control on him when the gas pedal jammed in the floor mat, which he managed to free after placing the gear shift into neutral.

He complained to a dealership receptionist when he returned the car, the receptionist told investigators she alerted the detail specialist on duty, but the detailer claimed never to have received such a complaint, the report said.

Attorney John Gomez, representing plaintiffs in the Saylor case, said the settlement allows them to press ahead with claims against the San Diego dealer, Bob Baker Lexus, which was a defendant in the original suit but not a party to the agreement.

A lawyer for Baker, Larry Willis, also confirmed the $10 million settlement amount and added that Toyota did not admit liability as part of the agreement.

Toyota has declined to comment on the terms of the settlement, but said Baker "wants the amount publicized in an apparent effort to shift the focus away from his dealership as he continues to litigate this case with the families."

Gomez said the plaintiffs regard the dealership as the "overwhelmingly responsible party," adding, "we'll ask for a lot more than $10 million against Bob Baker."

(Additional reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego and John Crawley in Washington; Editing by Carol Bishopric, Gary Hill)

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