NEW YORK (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp is facing a growing number lawsuits from consumers who complain their vehicles suddenly accelerate or may do so, and want the world’s largest automaker to pay for it.
Last week, Toyota stopped selling eight models in the United States and Canada, including its popular Camry and Corolla, because of possible unintended acceleration.
Some 8 million vehicles are up for repair worldwide over problems including alleged faulty accelerator pedals made by the supplier CTS Corp, and the possibility that floor mats could jam the accelerator pedal.
Other recalled Toyota vehicles are the Avalon, Highlander, Matrix, RAV4, Sequoia and Tundra.
The problems have tarnished Toyota’s reputation for making some of the most reliable vehicles on the road. It is the most prominent auto safety issue since reports surfaced in 2000 that many Firestone tires mounted on Ford Explorers failed.
“Liability for Toyota could run in the billions of dollars, because of the number of vehicles involved and the fact there are serious injury and death claims,” said Gary Robb, a partner at Robb & Robb LLC in Kansas City, Missouri. He said his firm has fielded inquiries from consumers and may sue Toyota.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it has no proof that anyone was injured by a stuck pedal. It said it has confirmed to its satisfaction that five people have died as a result of floor mat entrapment.
Since November, at least 10 lawsuits seeking class-action status have been filed against Toyota in U.S. courts and in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Canada.
It is possible that some U.S. litigation could be combined because the claims are similar and it would be too unwieldy to try cases one owner at a time.
Toyota on Monday had no immediate comment on the lawsuits.
Legal experts said drivers might have more difficulty recovering if they cannot show their cars actually experienced sudden acceleration. Fear that it could happen may not be enough.
“In a significant majority of states, there is no remedy for mental upset and fright, absent a consequential injury to people or property caused by the defect,” said James Henderson, a Cornell Law School professor and product liability expert.
David Owen, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and director of its Office of Tort Law Studies, said Toyota might be more at risk in U.S. states that impose on manufacturers of a “duty to warn” consumers about a defect.
“The grounds to sue are that there was a design defect, regardless of what Toyota may do to mop up the consequences, and the possibility that a post-sale warning was delayed too long,” he said.
“If it turned out that Toyota delayed the recall beyond the point when a reasonable manufacturer would have done so, then punitive damages in substantial amounts might be available to whoever was physically injured,” Owen added.
Some plaintiffs are expected to seek recovery for an expected loss of resale value tied to the stigma from the recalls, though Owen said courts are generally “unresponsive” to such claims, including in Firestone tire lawsuits.
Others may seek to recover for expenses tied to the recall, including lost work hours and the cost of finding alternative transportation while their vehicles are being fixed.
Four of the most recent lawsuits were filed on Friday.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Corpus Christi, Texas, the plaintiffs Albert and Sylvia Pena alleged that their 2008 Toyota Avalon unexpectedly accelerated at least twice, and on January 14 caused a collision at a stop sign.
“Toyota has long known about the defect with their throttle control, and has done too little, too late to correct it,” said Robert Hilliard, a lawyer representing the Penas.
Three other federal lawsuits were filed in New Orleans on behalf of Avalon and Camry owners. These plaintiffs’ lawyers were unavailable to comment.
Robb said Toyota might learn from Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 withdrawal of Tylenol from stores, after seven people died from ingesting medicine spiked with cyanide.
The crime was never solved, but the company’s response, including the introduction of tamper-resistant packaging, is considered to be a textbook example of how to handle recalls.
“They saved not only their public image, but that brand,” Robb said. “There are real doubts as to whether Toyota’s brand, from a PR standpoint, can survive this (recall) intact. This has dragged on too long and there have been too many excuses.”
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim, Kevin Krolicki and Bernie Woodall in Detroit