The family of Noriko Uno say the sudden acceleration of her 2006 Toyota Camry led her car to fly out of control, ultimately ended in her death. Toyota says there was no defect in her vehicle, and driver error is to blame. Kathy Vara reports from the Westlake District for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Aug. 8, 2013.
Opening statements began Thursday in the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by family members of a Southern California woman killed in a 2009 crash that occurred amid widespread concerns regarding unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles.
Attorneys for the plaintiff indicated they plan to focus on a brake override system that they claim would have prevented the crash involving 66-year-old Noriko Uno, who was driving a 2006 Toyota Camry that slammed into a tree after she was involved in a collision with another driver.
Toyota's attorneys called the crash a "simple case" of driver error and "pedal misapplication." They claimed Uno might have intended to step on the brake, but was actually activating the gas pedal.
Similar cases involving Toyota drivers are pending across the country. The case in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom is considered the first of the "bellwether" cases in state courts, which are selected by a judge to help predict potential outcomes regarding similar claims.
There are more than 80 similar cases filed in state courts, according to the Associated Press. The Uno trial is expected to last about two months.
During opening statements Thursday, plaintiff attorney Garo Mardirossian talked about Uno and her family -- son Jeffrey and husband Peter. Witnesses, friends and family will be among the more than 40 people who will testify, he said, adding that he will ask the family be compensated $20 million.
"I think the defendants agree, this was a very tragic loss, but you can't let your sympathy play a role in this case," Mardirossian said. "You can consider the law and consider the evidence. We'll give you to the tools to fix this harm, the compensate this loss."
Toyota issued a statement Thursday in which the company said the car was already equipped with a "state-of-the-art" braking system.
"Our sympathies go out to the family and friends of Noriko Uno," the company said in the statement. "Toyota is committed to providing its customers with safe and reliable vehicles, including the 2006 Camry driven by Mrs. Uno, which was equipped with a state-of-the-art braking system."
Toyota attorney Vincent Galvin delivered his opening statement Thursday afternoon. He said the defense's case will take Uno's "overall behavior" into account.
"This vehicle could have been stopped if someone wanted to stop it," said Toyota attorney Vincent Galvin. "There was nothing wrong with the vehicle."
Uno's 2006 Toyota Camry was involved in a collision with another driver at an Upland intersection before it slammed into a tree on a residential street in August 2009 -- a crash that the family's attorney claims Uno could not prevent because she was unable to stop the vehicle, which was not equipped with a brake-override system. Toyota Motor Corp. issued a recall for 2007 Camrys to install the system, designed to override the accelerator if the gas and brake pedals are pressed at the same time.
Most vehicles are now equipped with some type of system that gives the brake priority if the gas and brakes pedals are operated simultaneously.
Toyota claims the system probably would not have prevented the Uno crash. The company cites witnesses who claim they never saw brake lights activate, raising questions over whether the driver was accidentally applying the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal
The lawsuit claims Uno was running errands in Upload when she swerved to avoid the oncoming vehicle. Mardirossian said the 86-year-old driver of the other vehicle also is a defendant in the case, but that Toyota played a "major role."
"Under these circumstances, the vehicle was a runaway," he said Thursday, describing Uno as a cautious driver who avoided freeways.
But defense attorneys claimed Uno encountered an "unexpected event" and did not react properly. They presented a map of the street on which the crash occurred, laying out the series of events -- attorney said she drove into oncoming traffic, struck at least two poles and crossed a median -- that led to the collision with a pepper tree.
"There has to be some explanation for this odd and unusual behavior," Galvin said. "The evidence will be that this is a simple case of driver's error.
"This is a case of pedal misapplication. It's been around for a long time. It's not a fabrication -- it actually happens. It's when someone, for whatever reason, intends to step on one pedal and steps on the opposite pedal.
The crash occurred during a series of high-profile complaints of unintended acceleration involving Toyota vehicles that led to recalls.
In 2009 and 2010, Toyota recalled nearly 8 million vehicles because of "sticking" accelerator pedals and a design flaw involving the floor mat that caused it to trap the gas pedal. Concerns about unintended acceleration prompted a 10-month study conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation and NASA that found no electronic flaws "capable of producing the large throttle openings required to create dangerous high-speed unintended acceleration incidents."
A federal court judge in Santa Ana approved the $1.6 billion settlement -- an estimate provided by plaintiff's lawyers -- earlier this year to resolve a class-action lawsuit over the acceleration issues.
None of those cases went to trial, but the automaker won a 2011 case filed by a New York doctor who cited unintended acceleration in a crash involving his 2005 Scion TC. That lawsuit was not consolidated into the federal cases.
In 2010, Toyota settled with the family of California Highway Patrol officer, his wife, their teen daughter and brother-in-law -- all were killed when a Lexus ES350 loaned by a San Diego dealership crashed in Santee. CHP investigators said they received a 911 report that the vehicle's accelerator was stuck before the August 2009 crash, which occurred on the same day as the collision involving Uno.
Two months after the Santee crash, Toyota recalled vehicles because of the floor mat entrapment issue.
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