Two Washington area drivers sue Toyota, alleging acceleration problems in cars

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; A16

Two Washington area drivers have filed personal injury lawsuits against the Toyota Motor Corp., joining about 280 personal injury and class-action suits filed across the country against the company.

In their lawsuits, Andrew Flury of Pasadena and retired Army Col. Harry Williams of Woodbridge say they suffered severe injuries after the cars they were driving suddenly accelerated -- an issue that generated a major recall of millions of Toyotas.

Their attorney, Todd Walburg of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, blamed an electronic throttle system for the unintended acceleration and said the system also operated without a brake override system that could have prevented throttle problems.

A Toyota spokeswoman said in an e-mail that it is "not our practice to comment on ongoing litigation."

Flury said that on April 29, 2008, he was driving his 2005 Toyota Echo west on Water Street in Baltimore, headed to a restaurant with his wife, Tetyana, to celebrate their anniversary. As he approached a stop sign, Flury said, he applied the brakes -- but instead of stopping, the car accelerated into an intersection and collided with a sport-utility vehicle.

Flury and his wife were knocked unconscious and suffered head injuries. Andrew Flury was in a coma for more than a month. He is partially paralyzed on his right side and has what his attorney calls "serious cognitive impairments that will affect him for the rest of his life." He has been unable to return to his job as a sales manager for a technical job placement firm.

Williams, the Woodbridge driver, says that on Jan. 23, 2009, he was driving a rented 2009 Camry from his home to the Pentagon, where he works as a liaison to Congress. As he approached a light at a major intersection along Jefferson Davis Highway, the Camry accelerated at a high rate of speed, Williams said. He said he was unable to stop the car by braking.

"As I was approaching the light and trying to hit the brakes, the car started speeding up," he said in a telephone interview. "It revved up and kept going."

Williams said he broadsided a van and was unconscious after the accident. He said he sustained back, neck and brain injuries. He also now has difficulty concentrating and has trouble with his short-term memory.

Toyota faces potentially significant legal expenses from the acceleration problems, legal experts say. Tim Howard, a law professor at Northeastern University who is helping to coordinate some of the class-action lawsuits in 24 states with 30 law firms, calculated that about 280 lawsuits have been filed. If each owner of the roughly 6 million Toyota vehicles that have been recalled were awarded, say, $500, it would cost Toyota about $3 billion in damages, Howard said.

Walburg and his firm have filed 14 cases involving acceleration troubles against Toyota in Pennsylvania, Michigan, California and other states.

The Flury and Williams complaints describe the electronic throttle control system, which the company began using in the late 1990s. Unlike a traditional throttle control system, in which a physical linkage connects the accelerator pedal to the engine throttle, the engine throttle is controlled by electronic signals sent from the gas pedal.

The plaintiffs say that Toyota, starting in 2002, changed how it made the electronic throttle control systems, taking out the mechanical link between the accelerator pedal and the engine throttle control. That forces the system to rely only on the electronics rather than have a physical part connected to the throttle.

Plus, they say, Toyota didn't have a "brake-to-idle override" system in its vehicles, which overrides the electronic throttle control to automatically stop the engine when the brakes are applied and do not respond.

Toyota denied that its vehicles have troubles with the electronic throttle control systems.

"We are confident that no problems exist with the electronic throttle control system in our vehicles," Cindy Knight, a Toyota spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. "We have designed our electronic system with multiple fail-safe mechanisms to shut off or reduce engine power in the event of a system failure -- and we've done extensive testing which confirms these fail-safes work."

The complaints were filed in federal court in Los Angeles, where Toyota has offices. The drivers are seeking general and punitive damages against the company for what they say is a failure to recall its vehicles "due to a known, significant safety defect and refusal to take any significant steps to prevent sudden unintended acceleration accidents in order to increase its profits."

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