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Toyota to face U.S. trial over vehicle acceleration

A sign with a logo is on display at a Toyota car sales and showroom in St. Petersburg, September 18, 2013. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk
A sign with a logo is on display at a Toyota car sales and showroom in St. Petersburg, September 18, 2013. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

By Jessica Dye

(Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> must face a trial over claims that it failed to warn the public about design defects that caused certain vehicles to accelerate unintentionally, a federal judge in California has ruled.

U.S. District Judge James Selna in the Central District of California on Monday denied Toyota's motion to dismiss defective-design and failure-to-warn claims brought against it by the estate of Ida St. John, who said in 2009 that her 2005 Camry sped out of control and hit a school building. She died after giving that testimony, but the lawsuit does not claim that her death was caused by the crash.

The judge did grant the Japanese automaker's motion to dismiss manufacturing defect and negligence claims.

St. John testified that her Camry accelerated even though she did not press the pedal. The trial, slated to begin November 5, will be one of the first of the many federal lawsuits focusing on the Toyota acceleration issues that prompted the automaker to recall millions of vehicles beginning in 2009.

The first federal sudden-acceleration case to go to trial ended with a win for Toyota in 2011, in a lawsuit brought by a doctor who worked in Brooklyn.

A spokeswoman for Toyota, Amanda Rice, said in a statement on Tuesday that St. John failed to prove the vehicle was defective and that the company is "confident the evidence at trial will confirm that Toyota drivers can depend on their vehicles to provide safe, reliable transportation."

A lawyer for the St. John estate, Todd Walburg, said in a statement, "It's time for a jury to hear about the defects that we've been studying over the past three years."

Since the recall, more than 500 individual and 200 proposed class-action lawsuits have been filed against Toyota in U.S. federal and state courts, according to a regulatory filing from the Japanese automaker.

Toyota said the 2005 Camry was not subject to acceleration related recalls.

In her lawsuit, St. John said Toyota received thousands of complaints about unintentional acceleration in vehicles equipped with electronic throttle control systems, which connect the accelerator to the engine. The company failed to warn customers, she alleged.

Toyota asked the judge to dismiss the case, saying the collision could have been caused by driving errors and contending that St. John did not demonstrate a connection with alleged defect or system failure in the vehicle.

But the judge on Monday said that testimony St. John previously gave, coupled with expert evidence submitted by the plaintiffs, "supports inferences from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the Camry continued to accelerate and failed to slow or stop despite her application of the brakes."

Selna also presided over a separate group of lawsuits over alleged economic losses stemming from acceleration issues. He signed off in July on a settlement valued at $1.6 billion to resolve those claims, which did not include personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits.

In a separate case, jurors in California state court are deliberating in the first sudden-acceleration case to be tried there, involving the death of a woman after her 2006 Camry crashed into a tree.

(Reporting by Jessica Dye in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder, David Gregorio and Carol Bishopric)

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