Toyota said on Friday that it would begin negotiations to settle hundreds of pending federal and state lawsuits over the sudden acceleration of its vehicles.
The decision comes two months after a Toyota Camry’s electronic throttle system was found to be defective by an Oklahoma jury. In that case, the jury found that Toyota had acted with “reckless disregard,” despite reports of problems in the cars, and was liable for a crash in 2005 that killed one woman and injured another.
Toyota had won its first three sudden-acceleration trials; the Oklahoma verdict was the automaker’s first loss. Legal analysts said that the verdict most likely spurred Toyota to pursue a broad settlement of its remaining cases.
“I think Toyota believed that the Oklahoma case exposed the company to much greater liability than was previously thought,” said Carl Tobias, a professor who specializes in product liability at the University of Richmond School of Law.
The negotiations could put an end to a four-year process that has both hurt Toyota financially and dealt a blow to its reputation for quality. In July, Toyota agreed to pay $1.6 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by vehicle owners who suffered financial losses.
Toyota still faces hundreds of personal injury and wrongful death suits, though. Most of those have been consolidated in California courts, and the decision to pursue a comprehensive settlement process will suspend that litigation. Lawyers representing plaintiffs in those cases said that the talks would save both sides time and legal costs.
“It indicates there is a willingness on both sides to sit at the table and discuss the resolution of every case,” said Moses Lebovits, who represents plaintiffs in two sudden-acceleration cases scheduled to be heard in California state court next year.
“It also takes a markedly shorter period of time,” Mr. Lebovits said. “We’re talking about hours and days rather than weeks and months.”
Toyota said a settlement process would help the automakers and the plaintiffs move forward faster. Since 2009, Toyota has recalled more than 11 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles for problems including floor mats that caused the accelerator to become stuck.
“In our view, this process will bring greater efficiency to the resolution of pending cases and provide a clear path forward for those claims that cannot be resolved outside of trial,” Carly Schaffner, a Toyota spokeswoman, said in a statement on Friday. “We continue to stand behind the safety and quality of our vehicles and are grateful to our customers who have continued to stand behind Toyota.”
A hearing has been set for Jan. 14 in United States District Court for the Central District of California in Santa Ana, Calif.
“Toyota is anxious to get these unintended acceleration woes behind it, and the recent verdict in Oklahoma only highlights the potential for it to drag on indefinitely,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book.
“The automaker can quickly calculate the cost of settling these lawsuits, while the ongoing hit to its quality and safety reputation is difficult to predict should these trials continue over the next decade.”
A lawyer representing the women’s families said the verdict in that case most likely spurred Toyota to seek a settlement in its remaining cases because the automaker must now prove that a vehicle defect did not cause the unintended acceleration.
“I am not surprised that Toyota wants to resolve these cases,” said Jere Beasley, a lawyer with Beasley Allen in Montgomery, Ala. “There will be other large verdicts unless Toyota resolves these cases.”
Toyota faces more negative spillover than plaintiffs lawyers do when it loses a case, said Gregory Keating, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
“It is in general good for Toyota to put the entire episode behind them,” Mr. Keating said. “Every case reminds consumers of the issue, which will otherwise fade from memory. Every loss reminds consumers that there was a genuine problem.”