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December 14, 2013

Toyota to enter settlement talks

SANTA ANA, Calif. — After a four-year legal battle, Toyota is entering settlement talks on nearly 400 state and federal lawsuits that allege sudden unintended acceleration problems with its vehicles led to deaths and injuries.

Joint motions filed late Thursday in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana and Los Angeles County Superior Court indicated both sides would begin an “intensive settlement process” next month.

The Japanese automaker, which has recalled millions of cars since 2009 over the acceleration issue, agreed to the negotiations to make resolving the cases more efficient, spokeswoman Carly Schaffner told The Associated Press on Friday.

“We continue to stand behind the safety and quality of our vehicles,” she said.

Cases that don’t settle after a two-stage mediation process will go back to court for trial, said plaintiffs’ co-lead counsel Mark Robinson Jr., but most of the 375 claims will likely get resolved.

“It’s not practical to try all these cases,” he said. “You’ve got two chances to get your case settled and if you’re a plaintiff, at least you’re not just sitting in some file in the courthouse.”

The settlement negotiations come less than two months after an Oklahoma jury awarded a total of $3 million in damages to the injured driver of a 2005 Camry and to the family of a passenger who was killed.

The ruling was significant because Toyota had won all previous unintended acceleration cases that went to trial. It was also the first case where attorneys for plaintiffs argued that the car’s electronics — in this case the software connected to the Camry’s electronic throttle-control system — were the cause of the unintended acceleration.

At the time, legal experts said the Oklahoma verdict might cause Toyota to consider a broad settlement of the remaining cases. Until then, Toyota had been riding momentum from several trials where juries found it was not liable.

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