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Toyota settlement may signal future legal strategy

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 18, 2013 at 4:59 pm •  Published: January 18, 2013

Toyota continues to be dogged by sudden-acceleration issues that arose four years ago. Last month the U.S. government hit the company with a record $17.4 million fine for failing again to quickly report problems to federal regulators and for delaying a safety recall. More than 150,000 2010 Lexus Rx 350s and RX 450h models were recalled because the driver's-side floor mats can trap the gas pedal and cause the vehicles to speed up without warning.

Toyota has recalled more than 14 million vehicles globally to fix sticky gas pedals and floor mats. The company also paid a total of $48.8 million in fines for three violations in 2010.

While the recalls have soiled the company's sterling reputation for reliability, Toyota has regained its position as the world's largest automaker and saw sales increase 27 percent last year.

The automaker also has received some vindication Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA were unable to find any defects in Toyota's source code that could cause acceleration problems.

In 2011, a federal judge found that Toyota wasn't liable for a 2005 crash involving a Scion that the driver blamed on the electronic throttle or a floor mat.

A second bellwether trial is slated for later this year, but it's unclear if a resolution will be made before then. Plaintiffs' attorneys have reviewed thousands of internal Toyota documents, reviewed data and deposed employees, but most of that material has been kept under seal in court records.

In a statement announcing the Van Alfen settlement, Toyota said there will be a number of other chances to defend itself in a court of law, although the company may "decide from time to time" to settle select cases.

"It would seem that Toyota did not want a public airing of the evidence that has been gathered in the lawsuits, so that it can continue to say that there is not a problem," Spagnoli said. "If Toyota felt it could have successfully defended its products in these cases, it would have welcomed a public trial."