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Toyota Settles Likely Meritless Individual Case: Why?

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I recently noted that, and tried to explain the reasons why, Toyota has set aside a humongous amount of money to settle a likely meritless class action case involving alleged unintended acceleration.

But there are over 320 individual cases that had been filed, reunited before U.S. District Judge James Selna of the Central District of California in Santa Ana. Now comes news that Toyota has also reached a settlement in the first of these trials, which had been seen as a bellweather. In Val Alfen v. Toyota, it was alleged that a 66-year old man, Van Alfen, was driving his Toyota Camry on I-80 near Wendover, Utah in November 2010, when his car suddenly accelerated, went through a stop sign and an intersection at the bottom of an exit ramp, then hit a wall, killing Van Alfen and his son's fiancée and injuring Van Alfen's wife and son. Police reported that tire skid marks showed Van Alfen had braked, and the Utah Highway Patrol concluded that the gas pedal must have stuck. Of course this was before government agencies established that Toyota gas pedals never stuck. More likely is the possibility that Mr. Van Alfen was depressing both the accelerator and the brake at the same time.

Why did Toyota settle a case it had a great chance of winning? I don't know for sure, but I note that Toyota's attorneys made one egregious error: they examined Van Alfen's vehicle without giving advance notice to plaintiffs. Judge Seina concluded in June 2012 that this constituted egregious discovery abuse. As punishment, the judge indicated that he would instruct the jury that it could infer that any evidence Toyota gathered from its inspection would have been detrimental to its defense.

Yesterday (the timing clearly indicates this was a quid pro quo of the settlement), Law.com reports, (subscription needed) the judge rescinded his discovery abuse ruling in these terms:

"[T]here will be no reference, either direct or indirect, to the court's order by any party, counsel or witness in this proceeding or any other proceeding, and the parties agree there will be no mention of the June 11, 2012, order to any participant in the November 19, 2010, inspection at any time in any setting, be it trial, deposition or otherwise."

The express terms of the judge's new edict prohibit anyone, in any case, from ever alluding to Toyota's discovery abuse. That alone is worth the price of the Van Alfen settlement, since Toyota has in every case a strong substantive argument that it surely does not wish to see sullied by procedural misconduct.

But is the judge's ruling constitutional? Isn't his past ruling a public decision, citable by any interested citizen? Individual parties can, as was obviously done here, waive their right to a ruling, but what about those whose trials have not yet taken place? It's not clear to me that a judge can, as it were, erase a final ruling in this way. The Law.com report shows that other Legal Ethics professors share my misgivings.

Litigation over the legal effect of the judge's ruling, I predict, will be the next big chapter in this saga.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


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The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.