How much did the motor company know and when?
The family of a 59-year-old woman who drowned when her 2009 Camry sped out of control and plummeted into a river near Sacramento, Calif., has sued Toyota Motor Corp., which already faces hundreds of lawsuits over deaths and injuries caused by accidents attributed to sudden acceleration. The case — which highlights a 911 emergency call in which the driver, Mussarat Chaudhary, attempts to seek help while trapped in her sinking car — draws parallels to a 2009 accident that prompted Toyota to recall nearly 10 million vehicles. According to a complaint filed on April 18 in Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court, Chaudhary was on her way to work last month as a dishwasher at a casino, when her vehicle “accelerated out of control on a ride of terror” that ended when it plunged into the Sacramento River. She called her daughter, Sadaf Chaudhary, complaining that her vehicle’s brakes weren’t working. She then called 911, hysterical and speaking at times in Punjabi. “My car — river!” she told a California Highway Patrol 911 operator, who responded: “Your car is in the river?” She replied: “River, river!” Minutes later, a translator got on the line and told the 911 operator that Chaudhary was saying the windows of the car were all closed and she couldn’t get out of the vehicle. She can be heard pounding on the windows on the audio recording. “She’s saying, ‘Is someone going to come, or no?'” the translator said to the operator. “Yes,” the operator told her. “We have someone on their way out there.” Minutes later, the connection was lost. John Kristensen of Kristensen Weisberg, LLP, one of three attorneys who filed the case, said he plans to ask Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Lee Edmon, who is overseeing about 100 California state court cases filed against Toyota over sudden acceleration, to designate the Chaudhary case for a bellwether trial. So far, two other bellwether cases are scheduled for trials later this year. “We feel very strong about the case,” he said. “We think it will be the type of case that will illuminate everything with Toyota and their electronic throttle control systems.” Toyota spokeswoman Toni Honsowetz issued a statement: “We sympathize with anyone in an accident involving one of our vehicles, but we can’t comment further on this lawsuit at this stage.” The California cases are separate from federal multidistrict litigation involving hundreds of personal-injury and wrongful death cases pending before U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana, Calif. Other cases are pending in state courts in Texas and New York. The Chaudhary attorneys drew a parallel to a 911 call that California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor made after his Lexus sped up to 100 miles per hour on a San Diego highway before crashing, killing him and three other relatives in the car. “We’re in trouble,” a passenger in Saylor’s car is heard saying on the 911 call. “There’s no brakes.” Saylor’s surviving relatives settled the case for $10 million, but have outstanding claims against Bob Baker Lexus, the dealership that rented the car to him. “Like the 911 call in the instant matter, this incident shocked and alarmed the American public, sparking investigations into the extent of unintended acceleration (‘UA’) incidents, what Toyota knew, and when they knew it,” the Chaudhary complaint says. “The UA phenomenon is both real and terrifying.” Kristensen said Chaudhary had purchased the vehicle about three months earlier from a used car dealership in Sacramento. The previous owner had brought the car into a Toyota dealership in Marina del Rey, Calif. for repairs following the 2010 recalls for faulty floor mats and accelerator pedals. The suit alleges that the recalls, however, provided a “smoke screen” for Toyota to avoid the real problem: An electronic throttle control system with defective software that causes acceleration and the lack of a brake override system to stop it. The suit names Toyota and subsidiaries Toyota Motor North America Inc.; Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America Inc.; Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.; Sacramento dealership Marshall Auto Inc., which does business as Marshall Auto Sales; the dealership in Marina del Rey; Westside Investment Inc., which does business as Marina del Rey Toyota; Denso Corp., the Japanese company that makes the electronic throttle control system and its U.S. subsidiary, Denso International America Inc.; and CTS Corp., which manufactures the accelerator pedals for Toyota. The suit was filed by Chaudhary’s husband, Muhammed Arshad Chaudhary, and her eight children. It seeks medical and funeral costs and punitive damages.