Automotive Products Liability: Update on Toyota's "Sticking Gas Pedals"

Author: Attorney  Scott D. Fitzgerald

On August 28, 2009, the gas pedal on Mark Saylor's loaned Lexus ES3500 stuck under the floor mat while he was driving the car on a San Diego highway.  After reaching speeds approaching 100 mph, a passenger was able to place a frantic 911 call before Mark Saylor lost control and crashed, killing everyone in the vehicle.  The family's products liability claim against Toyota was later settled for an undisclosed sum.[1]

Over the past decade, the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration (NHSTA) has received over 3,000 reports of sudden acceleration incidents involving Toyota manufactured vehicles.  Upon investigation, many of them appear to have involved operator error, but at least five deaths have been confirmed by the NHSTA as a result of gas pedal malfunctions.[2]

The NHSTA and NASA collaborated to investigate what was causing the gas pedals to stick, and more importantly, whether Toyota successfully fixed it with recalls in 2009 and early 2010.  Their report, recently issued in February, concluded there were no electronic problems causing the inadvertent acceleration in any of Toyota's models.  Instead, the problems were caused by mechanical failures; specifically, sticky gas pedals and floor mat entrapment of the accelerator.[3] Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced: "[t]he verdict is in.  There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.  As we stated last year, there are only two real-world causes of high-speed unintended acceleration in Toyotas.  First, some Toyota floor mats entrapped drivers' gas pedals while their vehicles were in motion.  Second, so-called 'sticky pedals' made some Toyota accelerators too slow to release."  This encouraging report indicates that Toyota solved the glitches last year with their recalls targeted at replacing sticky gas pedals and securing floor mats to prevent interference with pedals. Accordingly, pedal-related complaints to the NHSTA about Toyota vehicles dropped over 90% since these two major recalls.[4]

As a result of these problems, Toyota has been the target of hundreds of products liability lawsuits over the issue of sticking accelerators, many of which have been consolidated into one class action suit that will be heard by Judge James Selna in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.[5] The case is presently set for trial in February 2013.[6] These products liability lawsuits accuse Toyota of knowing about the sudden acceleration problem and hiding it until media reports about the issue made that impossible.  Several insurance companies have filed subrogation claims against the company, alleging they have paid out insurance claims that relate to defective products on Toyota vehicles.[7]

In total, Toyota has been fined $48,800,000.00 by the U.S. government for their mishandling of the recalls.[8] The NHSTA found that Toyota failed to promptly report the problem to federal regulators and also delayed  - until after the much publicized accident in San Diego - before they issued recalls, despite knowing of the issue well before that.

The NHSTA announced plans to perform research to ensure similar problems do not occur in the future.  LaHood announced that his administration would conduct studies on electronic control systems such as brake overrides, standardized keyless ignition systems and the benefits of event data recorders, or vehicle black boxes, on all new vehicles.[9] He also pledged to review the placement and design of accelerator and brake pedals on cars in the future to avoid mat entrapment issues.

About Scott D. Fitzgerald: Scott Fitzgerald is the great grandson of the Firm's founder, George E. Allen, Sr., and is the fourth generation of the Allen family to join the Allen Law Firm. He is focusing his practice exclusively on personal injury cases including car accident cases and motorcycle accident cases in the Richmond, VA area.  Scott is dedicated to protecting the best interests of his clients and defending their rights against insurance companies.


[1] See http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/mar/02/saylor-relatives-file-suit/.
[3] See id.
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