Calif. suit blames Toyota throttle for fatal crash

LOS ANGELES Thu Feb 4, 2010 9:51pm EST

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Relatives of a California woman killed in the crash of her Toyota Camry, an accident they say occurred when the car spontaneously sped out of control, sued the automaker on Thursday and demanded the company vastly expand its recall.

The suit asserts the crash that killed Noriko Uno, 66, was triggered by a defect in Toyota's electronic "drive-by-wire" throttle system, which the carmaker has so far ruled out as a cause of incidents of unintended acceleration in its vehicles.

Instead, Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) has insisted such problems are mechanical in nature, rooted in ill-fitting floor mats that can cause the accelerator pedal to jam, or in pedals themselves that stick.

Toyota declined to comment on the Uno suit, as it has on other pending litigation, a company spokesman said.

The latest products liability and negligence case seeks unspecified monetary damages from the Japanese automaker, which faces a growing number of lawsuits from consumers complaining of runaway acceleration in their vehicles.

Toyota has recalled some 8 million vehicles worldwide, including 2.3 million in the United States for the repair of sticking gas pedals in its eight top-selling models. Millions more vehicles were recalled for floor mat adjustments.

For the Camry, which accounts for the largest number of U.S. vehicles involved, the recalls cover 2007 through 2010 model-year cars. Uno's car, bought new by the family from a local dealership, was a 2006 model, though it had just 10,000 miles on it at the time of the crash.

Uno was running errands near her home when the accident occurred, said Garo Mardirossian, a lawyer for her family.

"Witnesses saw her vehicle rocketing 100 miles an hour, weaving in and out of traffic trying to avoid hitting people and it eventually hit a curb, went airborne, hit a pole, then hit a tree, and she died," he said.

'SLEIGHT OF HAND'

Members of the Uno family said they hope their lawsuit and others like it will prompt Toyota to broaden its recall to include all models equipped with an electronic throttle and to retrofit those automobiles with a brake override system.

Garo said Toyota's current recall repairs amount to "sleight of hand."

"My wife should not die ... we loved my wife," Uno's husband, Peter, 67, told a news conference in the town of Pomona, east of Los Angeles.

Garo told Reuters that a brake override, which cuts power to the engine when both the brake and throttle are engaged, would have saved Uno's life.

"Toyota ... could have easily put in an override system, but they decided not to," he said. "I suspect cost had something to do with it."

Toyota has said a brake override would be installed on several car models included under its recall for floor mat entrapment, and will be made standard equipment on all product lines starting this year.

Garo told Reuters that for the Camry, Toyota's recall should be extended to the model's sixth generation, covering years 2002 through 2006, which was the first to have drive-by-wire throttles.

He said Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) knew of 389 complaints of out-of-control acceleration in those model years, compared with about a quarter of that number for the previous generation of Camry.

He said NHTSA closed investigations of such reports "because it could not get enough information about those complaints to reach a conclusion. ... So they closed their files without giving the vehicle a clean bill of health."

Garo said the Uno case was not previously known to Toyota or the government and only came to his attention a couple of weeks ago after the family "connected the dots" from media accounts about the recall and similar crashes.

The Uno wreck occurred the same day, August 28, 2009, as a similar accident that was a major turning point in Toyota's recall saga -- the crash of a runaway Lexus driven by an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer near San Diego that killed him and three others.

The case is Uno vs. Toyota Motor Corp et al, Suerior Court of the state of California, for the County of Los Angeles, No. KC05788

(Editing by Gary Hill)

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