“We’re in trouble, there’s no brake.” Those words, relayed from a cell phone, came just before a 2009 Lexus driven by off-duty policemen Mark Saylor crashed in San Diego County, killing four people. A couple days before Christmas, Toyota quietly agreed to pay $10 million to settle a lawsuit arising from that crash, probably the most horrendous incident arising from the unintended acceleration quagmire. Is this the end of Toyota's troubles? Probably not, because even with declining incident reports the legal tangles are many.
Toyota did not accept (or deny) responsibility in the settlement, and the company was aggrieved that the details had been made public. The parties, Toyota said, had “reached a private, amicable settlement through mutual respect and cooperation without the involvement of the courts.”
Well, leaving aside how “amicable” a settlement can be in a case involving four deaths, it’s plain that unintended acceleration has died down as an issue, but it is far from dead. I continue to get reports of runaway cars — all makes, with no special emphasis on Toyota.
The owner of a 2007 Ford Victoria “Police Interceptor” model told me that in September he nearly went through an automatic gate when his engine began to race, and only by quickly turning off the ignition was he able to prevent an accident. “A large amount of black smoke resulted from [the] racing engine,” he said, adding that the problem seemed to be related to hitting the brakes. He reported two previous incidents, and said he had three witnesses.
It is impossible to pass judgment on incidents like this, other than to affirm that they are very real indeed to the people reporting them to me.
And what to make of the strange case of Koua Fong Lee, a Minnesota man who went to prison after his 1996 Toyota Camry spun out of control in 2006 and killed three people? Lee refused a plea bargain in the case because he says this was unintended acceleration — he was pressing the brake at the time of the accident. Lee is now out of jail, and further charges have been dropped. He still maintains his innocence.
Cases like Lee’s are impossible to reconcile, or even pass any kind of reliable judgment on. Lee brought in expert witnesses who testified that the Camry’s brake had been pressed, and that the accelerator was stuck down. Among the dead was a 10-year-old boy, and if I was a member of his family, I’d want him back in jail.
By October, Toyota had taken back and repaired some 5 million cars with floor mat and pedal adjustments, and all 2011 Toyota, Lexus and Scion models come with black box data recorders to help determine how accidents unfolded. Meanwhile, the company reported that new reports of unintended acceleration had dropped fivefold, from 800 a week to 150 a week.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has received 3,000 complaints about unintended acceleration in the last 10 years, with 93 deaths. The lawsuits are still coming, too. In November, a federal judge declined to dismiss pending lawsuits against the company based on owners saying their car value has plummeted.
And one of the lawsuits, filed in November, comes with video. In South Elgin, Ill., last May, 87-year-old Leon Przybylowski’s 2006 Toyota Corolla (not covered by a recall) suddenly took off in an Off Track Betting parking lot, crashing into a parked car and then crashing into a brick wall. Przybylowski died of his injuries, but not before saying that the car took off by itself. A surveillance camera caught this video, as Fox reports:
This tragic case is just one of many that may never have a satisfactory resolution. It's impossible to prove that unintended acceleration did occur — and equally challenging to convince hearts and minds that it didn't.