$1 billion deal major step in Toyota legal trouble

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — With a proposed payout of more than $1 billion, one major chapter of a nearly four-year legal saga that left Toyota Motor Corp. fighting hundreds of lawsuits and struggling with a tarnished image has ended, though another remains.

The settlement — unprecedented in its size according to a plaintiff’s attorney — brings an end to claims from owners who said the value of their vehicles plunged after recalls over sudden and unintended acceleration.

Lawsuits claiming that the defects caused injury or death remain.

Steve Berman, a lawyer representing Toyota owners, said the settlement is the largest in U.S. history involving automobile defects.

The courtroom claims began with a highway tragedy. Four people were killed in California in 2009 after their car, a Toyota-built Lexus, reached speeds of more than 120 mph, hit an SUV, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames.

Investigators determined that a wrong-size floor mat trapped the accelerator and caused the crash.

That discovery spurred a series of recalls involving more than 14 million vehicles and a flood of lawsuits soon followed, with numerous complaints of accelerations in several models, and brake defects with the Prius hybrid.

The Japanese automaker has blamed driver error, faulty floor mats and stuck accelerator pedals for the problems.

The runaway Lexus case was settled separately for $10 million in 2010, before the cases were consolidated by U.S. District Judge James Selna.

Selna divided them into two categories: economic loss and wrongful death. He needs to approve Wednesday’s settlement, which only applies to the first group of lawsuits. The deal was filed Wednesday and Selna is expected to review it on Friday.

Toyota said it will take a one-time, $1.1 billion pre-tax charge against earnings to cover the estimated costs of the settlement. Berman said the total value of the deal is between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion.

As part of the economic loss settlement, Toyota will offer cash payments from a pool of about $250 million to eligible customers who sold vehicles or turned in leased vehicles between September 2009 and December 2010.

The company also will launch a $250 million program for 16 million current owners to provide supplemental warranty coverage for certain vehicle components, and it will retrofit about 3.2 million vehicles with a brake override system. An override system is designed to ensure a car will stop when the brakes are applied, even if the accelerator pedal is depressed.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have spent the past two years deposing Toyota employees, poring over documents and reviewing software code, but the company maintains those lawyers have been unable to prove that a design defect — namely Toyota’s electronic throttle control system — was responsible for vehicles surging unexpectedly.

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