SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — The first lawsuit to go to trial in a massive class action against Toyota Motor Corp. over acceleration problems that led the company to recall 14 million cars will involve a crash that killed two people in western Utah, a federal judge said Friday.
U.S. District Judge James Selna told attorneys the case of 38-year-old Charlene Jones Lloyd and 66-year-old Paul Van Alfen, whose Toyota Camry slammed into a wall in Utah in 2010, is scheduled to go to trial in February 2013.
The case — Van Alfen v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. — will be the first of several bellwether lawsuits, intended to determine how the rest of the litigation will proceed.
Selna wrote in a tentative order that he hoped the selection would "markedly advance these proceedings."
"The Court believes that selection of a personal injury/wrongful death case is most likely the type of case to meet that goal," Selna said.
Toyota said it welcomes the Utah case as the first suit to reach court.
"We are pleased that the initial bellwether will address plaintiffs' central allegation of an unnamed, unproven defect in Toyota vehicles, as every claim in the multi-district litigation rests upon this pivotal technical issue," the company said in a statement.
Toyota has previously argued the plaintiffs have been unable to prove that a design defect in its electronic throttle control system is responsible for vehicles surging unexpectedly. It has instead blamed driver error, faulty floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals.
The automaker's defense was buoyed earlier this year when U.S. regulators said electronic flaws weren't to blame for unintended acceleration. Plaintiffs' attorneys, however, want to look at Toyota's secretive source code that may provide more information about the system.
Van Alfen was driving the Camry on Interstate 80 near Wendover, Utah, on Nov. 5, 2010, when it suddenly accelerated, investigators said. Tire skid marks showed that Van Alfen tried to stop the vehicle as it exited Interstate 80, police said. The car went through a stop sign at the bottom of the ramp and through an intersection before hitting the wall.
Van Alfen and Lloyd, his son's fiancée, were killed. Van Alfen's wife and son were injured.
The Utah Highway Patrol concluded based on statements from witnesses and the crash survivors that the gas pedal was stuck.
The 2008 Camry Van Alfen was driving was subject to recalls focusing on all-weather floor mats interfering with accelerator pedals, unsecured mats entrapping the gas pedal and accelerators getting stuck.
Selna said a second bellwether case will be selected in September with trial to start in May 2013.