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Judge throws out Toyota bellwether case

People are reflected on a Toyota Motor vehicle logo at the company showroom in Tokyo
People are reflected on a Toyota Motor vehicle logo at the company showroom in Tokyo

By Moira Herbst

(Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge dismissed on Thursday the first scheduled bellwether case in nationwide litigation alleging Toyota Motor Corp made defective vehicles that accelerated unexpectedly.

In the ruling, Judge James Selna said his court lacked jurisdiction over the case, and that the proper forum for it is Utah state court. Selna's court, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Santa Ana, is overseeing hundreds of lawsuits against Toyota for alleged safety defects.

Initially selected in June by the judge as the first bellwether to go to trial in February 2013, the wrongful death case involves a Utah crash that killed two people.

"We are pleased this jurisdictional issue has been resolved and that the Court agrees with Toyota that the proper forum for this case is Utah state court," said Celeste Migliore, a Toyota spokeswoman.

An attorney for the plaintiffs did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

According to the lawsuit, Paul Van Alfen was killed when the 2008 Toyota Camry he was driving slammed into a wall opposite an exit ramp on a highway near Wendover, Utah. The November 5, 2010 accident occurred after the Camry unexpectedly accelerated and did not stop even after Van Alfen applied the brakes, the plaintiffs allege.

A passenger in the car, Charlene Lloyd, died from her injuries the next day, and Van Alfen's wife Shirlene and son Cameron were injured in the crash, the complaint states. They also sued Toyota.

Toyota, the world's largest automaker, has recalled several million vehicles for problems since late 2009, including stuck gas pedals and floor mat flaws, that owners have linked to unintended acceleration.

The recalls led to hundreds of state and federal lawsuits, including claims over alleged injuries, wrongful deaths and "economic loss" tied to lost resale value. Most cases have been consolidated into multi-district litigation in Selna's court in Santa Ana, California.

The cases are: In re: Toyota Motor Corp Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 10-ml-02151; and Van Alfen et al v. Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc et al in the same court, No. 11-04143.

(Reporting by Moira Herbst, additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)

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