Toyota sued in California over Prius brakes

LOS ANGELES Mon Feb 8, 2010 6:42pm EST

A Toyota Prius vehicle is pictured parked at a dealership in Crissier near Lausanne February 7, 2010. REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud

A Toyota Prius vehicle is pictured parked at a dealership in Crissier near Lausanne February 7, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Valentin Flauraud

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp faced its first U.S. class-action lawsuit stemming from complaints of faulty braking of its top-selling Prius hybrid model, which the automaker is to recall.

The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Friday, seeks unspecified monetary damages and a court order requiring Toyota to repair a braking defect that the named plaintiff, Elaine Miller, says makes driving her 2010 Prius dangerous.

Miller's lawyer, Daniel Warshaw, said on Monday he is seeking class-action status in California for all affected owners of the 2010-year Prius and the 2010 Lexus HS250h hybrid, which he said is equipped with the same braking system.

"The crux of the (suit) is to get these vehicles fixed and safe," he told Reuters.

A Toyota spokesman declined comment on the product liability suit, which accuses the company of negligence and breach of warranty.

The lawsuit says the cars "suffer from a material defect" in their "regenerative braking system" -- designed to recycle kinetic energy from the friction of slowing the car -- that causes the brake system "to routinely and systematically disengage."

It has been just over two weeks since the world's largest automaker began a recall of 8 million vehicles because of a sticky gas pedal, but already, at least 30 class-action lawsuits have been filed against the cash-rich company.

Warshaw said he brought the suit, believed to be the first seeking class-action status against Toyota over Prius braking complaints, in California because the state has some of the nation's toughest consumer protection laws and because Toyota's U.S. operations are based there.

SOFTWARE GLITCH CITED

Warshaw said the problem, apparently rooted in a computer software glitch, is most pronounced when trying to slow down or stop the vehicle on uneven or slippery road surfaces.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency of the U.S. Transportation Department, lists 124 such braking complaints from consumers since February 3, including four reports of accidents, two of them said to have resulted in injury.

NHTSA said it opened a formal investigation February 4 into complaints of "momentary loss of braking capability while traveling over an uneven road surface, pothole or bump."

The suit suggests that tens of thousands of vehicles may be affected. The bulk of some 103,000 model-year 2010 Prius cars sold in the United States are in California, Warshaw said.

Toyota acknowledged it was aware of a braking problem and sought to fix it in production with a software adjustment starting in January, but 2010 models that rolled off the assembly line before that were sold without the change.

Miller's car, purchased by the Los Angeles retiree in August of 2009, was one. The 2010 model Prius was introduced in the United States in May 2009.

"We don't even know if the (production) fix was effective," Warshaw said. "They're required to issue a technical service bulletin" (to repair cars) but "that was never done."

A U.S. Toyota spokesman has said the company expected to have a solution to braking complaints early this week and was preparing a global recall.

The Prius has been the world's best-selling hybrid vehicle, helping Toyota grab 70 percent of the U.S. market for vehicles powered by a combination of an external-combustion engine and electric motor.

The case is Miller vs. Toyota Motor Sales, USA et al, Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles, No. BC431344.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Leslie Gevirtz)

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