Jury Sides With Toyota in Product Defect Case – Sitafalwalla v. Toyota Motor Corporation

A federal jury in New York has returned a verdict in favor of Toyota in one of the first lawsuits brought to trial since the 2008 Toyota recalls. The product defect case of Amir Sitafalwalla v. Toyota Motor Sales USA, Inc., 2008 cv 03001 (E.D. N.Y.) was tried in Central Islip, Long Island, New York.

In this product defect lawsuit, the plaintiff, Amir Sitafalwalla, filed his lawsuit after a 2008 car accident involving his 2005 Toyota Scion. Sitafalwalla, a doctor from Long Island, crashed his vehicle into a tree after it experienced a sudden acceleration. Plaintiff’s attorneys maintained that the single vehicle car accident was caused either by product defects in either the vehicle’s electronic throttle system or its floor mats, a claim that was backed up by plaintiff’s engineering experts.

In response, Toyota’s attorneys claimed that the accident was a result of the driver’s negligence, not its floor mats or electronic system. The jury apparently agreed with the defendants, returning a not guilty verdict in its favor after just an hour of deliberation.

Statements taken by one of the New York jurors attested that after weighing all the evidence that the jury determined that there was not enough evidence to support that there was a defect with the car. A Toyota spokesperson cited the New York decision as proof that plaintiffs in similar product liability lawsuits “would not be able to identify, let alone prove, the existence of an electronic defect in the Toyota vehicles.”
The product defect lawsuit trial came after the release of a February 2011 report by NASA, which found that there was likely no defect in the Toyota vehicles. The NASA report was commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in response to the 2008 Toyota recalls to investigate whether the vehicle’s sudden accelerations were caused by an electrical problem. While the NASA report seemed to clear the auto manufacturer of product defect claims, the automotive safety experts also stated that the situation bears continued monitoring.

However, the Sitafalwalla verdict and the NASA report do not bode well for the pending lawsuits against the car manufacturer. In a product liability lawsuit the burden is on the plaintiff to identify and prove the existence of a product defect. The Sitafalwalla case was clearly not able to do so, citing that the auto accident was either the cause of a defective floor mat or an electronic failure. These drastically different defects, coupled with the not guilty verdict, would leave one to assume that the plaintiff’s engineering experts were not able to find clear evidence to support the plaintiff’s theory of liability. It will be interesting to see whether other plaintiffs fare better against the auto manufacturer.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois product defect cases, including claims of automotive defects and manufacturing defects, for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Arlington Heights, Barrington, Calumet Park, Evanston and Chicago’s Roscoe Village.

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