South Florida Judge: Punitive Damages Ok’d in Paralyzing Crash Case

A judge overseeing the product liability case against a vehicle manufacturer whose alleged acceleration problems led to a paralyzing crash has approved a plaintiff request to seek punitive damages.
What that means is the former University of Central Florida student whose injuries rendered him quadriplegic could potentially receive somewhere between $135 million to $180 million if he’s successful in his case. That’s roughly 10 times what he could have received had Palm Beach Circuit Court Judge Meenu Sasser not approved the request.

The man now requires around-the-clock care – and will for the rest of his life. But the greater factor concerning why those additional funds are warranted has to do with the alleged actions of the auto maker. After all, punitive damages are intended to serve as punishment to a liable defendant.

This case is one of several hundreds pending in both state and federal court against a single car manufacturer whose electronic throttle-control system is at issue. Plaintiffs claim problems with the throttle caused the vehicles to accelerate without notice or warning to the driver, resulting in serious and sometimes fatal crashes.

In order to support a claim for punitive damages, plaintiff attorneys have presented pre-trial evidence indicating the company knew about the problem, and not only failed to tell the public, but actively worked to conceal it. For a long time, the spokespersons for the manufacturer Plaintiff lawyers say internal correspondence and e-mails surfaced in another case out of Oklahoma that showed the company blamed the problem on misplaced floor mats, when in fact, it knew the problem was an electronic failure.

The company did issue a recall for accelerator pedals that were “sticky” in some models and also for floor mat entrapment. However, the model driven by the Florida college student was not covered in that recall.

His lawyers say he suddenly lost control of his 2001 Toyota Camry while driving along State Road 551 in Orlando and slammed into a building. That was in the summer of 2011. Doctors diagnosed him with a spinal cord injury that has left him permanently paralyzed. His lawyers say the only movement he can make voluntarily is to blink his eyes.

The original complaint cites spontaneous acceleration as one possible cause of the crash, but notes defective spot welding may have been to blame as well, as that could have resulted in a floor pan structure failure.

The Oklahoma case from which the additional evidence was derived was decided two years ago, when a jury awarded $3 million in economic damages to the claimant, who was severely injured (her passenger was killed). The jury, however, informed the judge it intended to assess punitive damages against the car maker. In response, the car maker quickly moved to settle with plaintiff for an undisclosed sum.

Specifically for the issue of unintended acceleration, the company has recalled more than 10 million cars. Most of those pending lawsuits were settled solely for economic losses for a collective $1.6 billion. However, those who wanted to reject the settlement and pursue their own litigation were free to do so, and this plaintiff was one of those.

Our Fort Lauderdale injury lawyers recognize that what works in plaintiff’s favor here – and what likely factored into the judge’s decision – was a settlement the company reached with the U.S. Department of Justice, in which it agreed to pay a $1.2 billion fine (the biggest ever for an auto maker) and conceded it had concealed and mislead the public about the causes of unintended acceleration.

Those statements are now on public record, and will likely be underscored in court.

Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:
Palm Beach Judge Allows Punitives Against Toyota in Paralyzing Crash, Jan. 15, 2015, By Noreen Marcus, Daily Business Review
More Blog Entries:
New Florida Child Car Seat Law in Effect Jan. 1, 2015, Jan. 15, 2015, Broward Accident Lawyer Blog

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