After losing a motion to prevent him from appearing, Toyota Motor Corporation’s CEO for North America, Jim Lentz took the witness stand in a lawsuit filed by the survivors of a woman who was killed when her Camry allegedly sped out of control and hit a tree after it was hit by another car, whose driver is a co-defendant in the case. One issue in the court case is why Toyota did not equip Noriko Uno’s car with a brake override system that automatically closes the throttle when the brakes are applied.
Lentz answered questions posed by the plaintiffs’ attorney in regard to how the company marketed the system when it did start making it available. Toyota branded the system as “smart stop”, apparently rejecting “safe stop”, according to internal Toyota documents plaintiffs obtained as part of the discovery process.
Lentz said that the reason why the company chose “smart” instead of “safe” was to avoid promising more than they could deliver. “I made clear to the marketing department that it had to be something that didn’t overpromise,” Lentz said. “Safe stop or sure stop was overpromising because it wouldn’t necessarily stop the acceleration in all cases.”
The Uno case is the first of about 85 personal-injury and wrongful-death lawsuits filed against Toyota in California courts regarding supposed unintended acceleration. The company has already settled an economic loss class action suit at a cost estimated to be $1.63 billion. That suit was about the value of used Toyotas declining due to the massive recalls the company initiated to address the issue.
Among other actions in the recall, Toyota installed brake override system software on the recalled models and started equipping all of its new production cars with the override system. The plaintiffs pointed out that Toyota had started installing the system on some of its European modes in the early 2000s and questioned Lentz on why it was not featured on its U.S. models. Lentz said that he only knew of one European Toyota that featured a brake override.
Also testifying Tuesday was an expert witness who testified that Uno was hospitalized for vomiting blood and being dizzy and light-headed on two separate occasions before her fatal accident. Toyota argues that Uno’s cognitive abilities were impaired by her diabetes and liver conditions. Before she hit the tree, following the initial collision with another car, she drove the wrong way down a one-way street.
Toyota has said Uno’s diabetes and liver conditions impaired her cognitive abilities and caused her to drive down a one-way residential street into oncoming traffic after being hit by another vehicle.