What to Do After an Accident Due to a Car Accelerating on Its Own
Every day, we rely on our cars to safely transport us from one place to another. When the cars we have trusted go out of control and endanger lives, a sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) event may be to blame.
If you or someone you love has been involved in a crash due to a SUA, you are not alone. Our firm has represented individuals who have experienced a SUA and held vehicle manufacturers accountable for their defective vehicles.
Contact one of our experienced Los Angeles auto defect attorneys to find out how we may be able to help you with your case or contact our firm to schedule a no-cost consultation.
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What is Sudden Unintended Acceleration?
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Sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) is when a car accelerates on its own without a command from the driver (such as stepping on the accelerator or gas pedal). In most cases, a SUA entails a prolonged period of high, uncontrolled acceleration, usually accompanied with a loss of the ability to slow the vehicle.
A SUA can be caused by an electronic malfunction in the vehicle, such as a faulty accelerator pedal sensor. It can also be caused by a faulty input between the brake and the cruise control system or a failing throttle body which may cause the throttle plate to become stuck open.
A SUA can also have a non-mechanical cause, as was the case with the recall of a quarter of a million ‘78-’86 Audis in the United States. Investigators discovered that Audi’s European design was confusing American drivers and resulting in drivers incorrectly applying the pedal. In 2009, Toyota also experienced a problem when they recalled millions of vehicles. Investigations revealed that some Toyota SUAs were caused by accelerator pedals becoming stuck by loose floor mats.
Adding to the floor mat issue were sticky pedals, a defect whereby a Toyota accelerator pedal would become stuck in a partially depressed position. Toyota was even fined $1.2 billion. At the time, this was the largest penalty of its kind imposed upon an auto manufacturer (more on this below).
Risks Involved in Sudden Unintended Acceleration
Sudden unintended acceleration events by their very nature can be incredibly dangerous. SUAs risk total loss of vehicle control resulting in collisions of varying severity.
SUAs can result in numerous types of vehicular collisions, including:
Chain reaction or “pile ups”
Collisions into stationary objects
Such collisions can raise complex questions regarding liability, requiring the assistance of an experienced auto product defect attorney.
If you or a loved one have questions, you should contact an attorney experienced in handling auto product defect cases today. Our firm has over 40 years of experience in handling auto product defect cases and a track record of recovering multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements from some of the largest automotive manufacturers in the world.
Levels of Severity
SUAs range from non-accident causing incidents (although these should still be taken seriously and reported!) to tragic losses of life.
In 2009, it was reported that Chase Weir experienced a long SUA when his Ford Explorer’s cruise control became stuck and his vehicle stayed at speed of approximately 60 mph.
In 2007, it was also reported that two different drivers of the same make and model (2005 Toyota Camry) experienced SUA events. The first incident occurred at a restaurant parking lot in Pismo Beach, California. The driver came to a complete stop, only for his vehicle to suddenly accelerate, jump a curb, plow through a fence, and fall off a 70’ cliff.
Seven months later, the second driver exited U.S. 69 in Oklahoma. As she drove down the freeway off ramp, the driver realized her brake was no longer slowing the car. She opted to pull the emergency brake, leaving a 100-foot skid mark down the off ramp. The Camry continued to accelerate, crossed the roadway at the end of the ramp, and crashed into an embankment.
In 2013, our firm took the first SUA case against Toyota to trial in Uno v. Toyota. In the complaint for damages we filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, we highlighted numerous accounts of unintended accelerations in the 2002 – 2006 Toyota Camry models. These accounts included (you can view a more extensive list on our Uno v. Toyota page):
November 14, 2005: “2002 Toyota Camry suddenly accelerates “across two sidewalks and a hospital lawn and into two trees”
March 7, 2007: “2002 Toyota Camry – “The vehicle accelerated to almost 50 miles per hour for 20 – 30 seconds causing it to crash into a pole”
August 15, 2009: “Driving 2004 Toyota Camry when sudden acceleration occurred and vehicle ran into a Senior Center building”
More details on how we tried this case can be found in this podcast episode with The Great Trials Podcast:
Common Injuries Sustained in SUA Accidents
Sudden unintended acceleration events that lead to a crash can result in minor to severe injuries. Some of the more minor injuries include lacerations, abrasions, and bruises. In more severe cases, a driver or passenger can suffer catastrophic injuries, including traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, and broken bones. In the most grave of circumstances, a car that accelerates on its own may lead to the death of the occupants, other drivers, or pedestrians.
The NHTSA estimates that there are as many as 16,000 crashes each year that are the result of some form of unintended acceleration (though it is worth mentioning that some of these cases may be the result of pedal misapplication).
Select Laws Regarding Sudden Unintended Acceleration Accidents
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Who May Be Responsible for Sudden Unintended Acceleration Accidents?
Under the applicable liability laws, manufacturers, sellers, or distributors may be held accountable for defective products. This may be as a result of their negligence (such as a defective design) or under strict liability (such as when the product fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would have expected it to perform).
Often, some of the responsible parties are not immediately obvious, and are only revealed through detailed examination of the circumstances surrounding an accident. These will typically include other parties in the distribution chain, such as specific component manufacturers, who may then also be implicated in the suit. If the vehicle defect occurred during its shipping process, the shipping company may be liable as well.
As an example of this, in a case that we handled against an auto manufacturer, a portion of the driver’s seat failed due to a defective component in the seat. As part of the case, we included the manufacturer of that component since that company’s action contributed to the seat failure. Discovery of such liability can occur in many types of auto defect cases, and unintended acceleration cases are no exception.
Industry Regulations: What is Required of Manufacturers?
Vehicles in the United States are required to meet minimum Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). However, simply because a vehicle meets the minimum standards does not mean that the product is not defective. In fact, there are many areas of a vehicle where there is no applicable minimum safety standard.
For example, FMVSS 135, which concerns light vehicle brake systems, never requires that a manufacturer test for any scenario where the accelerator pedal is depressed at the same time as the brake pedal. Therefore, a vehicle could meet the minimum standards for braking as outlined in FMVSS 135 while still being defective, in that it may not be able to be stopped by pressing the brake pedal in the event that the accelerator pedal is engaged at the same time for whatever reason
Legal Rights of Those Involved in SUA Accidents
Those involved in a crash caused by a SUA may be entitled to bring legal action against the manufacturer(s), seller(s), and/or distributor(s) of the defective vehicle or part(s). Such cases often include recreations of the crash, real world testing, and expert witness testimony.
For example, for the Uno v. Toyota case, we performed real world track tests on a similar type of vehicle that Noriko was driving to demonstrate how her Camry speeds up even when the brake pedal is depressed:
The compensation an individual may receive following a SUA collision could depend on many factors. Those factors include:
The severity of the injuries
The significance of the emotional and psychological injuries
The financial impact caused by the collision or the injuries suffered as a result of the collision (for example, lost earning capacity)
The long lasting effect of the injuries
If you were involved in an accident due to unintended acceleration, this may have been the result of a vehicle failing to operate as it was supposed to, and it is therefore crucial to hold the appropriate parties responsible.
You should consult with an experienced auto defect attorney who can help you examine the circumstances of your crash and give you the best chance of obtaining the compensation you are owed.
Factors That Can Lead to a Car Accelerating on Its Own
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There are many potential causes of SUAs, some of which could have some form of legal recourse. These include sticky pedals, electric throttle or cruise control malfunctions, and stuck throttles. In our experience, an unintended acceleration event for a greater distance tends to indicate a product defect since typically (though not always) a driver will have had time to correct any driver-related errors.
Product Liability: Faulty/Defective Car Parts Leading to SUA
Product liability laws afford consumers protections against defective products that cause or contribute to their injuries, financial loss, or emotional distress. Some commonly defective components that can lead to SUA-related collisions include malfunctioning throttle bodies and accelerator pedal sensors.
The throttle body is a tube-like housing which forms a part of the vehicle’s air intake system. The throttle body contains a throttle plate, also known as butterfly, which opens when the driver steps on the accelerator or gas pedal. The opening of the throttle plate increases airflow to the combustion chamber of the engine, resulting in acceleration. A failing or exceedingly dirty throttle plate may stick open rather than returning to a neutral position, possibly resulting in a SUA.
Specific Models Prone to SUA & Product Recall
Pinning SUAs on a particular make or model of car has historically been hit-and-miss. The famous Audi and Toyota SUA recalls were ultimately claimed by the manufacturers not to be due to electrical or mechanical failures, but to user error and loose floor mats.
Starting in 2009 and lasting through 2011, Toyota began recalling several vehicle models including the Camry for SUAs. In 2013, Toyota lost a SUA case after an Oklahoma jury found that faulty electronics in a Camry caused the fatal incident. Some of the evidence uncovered during the Uno trial, including the testimony from then Toyota North America President Jim Lentz, was used during the Oklahoma trial. Even product liability expert & professor of law Carl Tobias stated that the ruling “has to be a real concern for Toyota” as “they have maintained all along there wasn’t a problem.”
Thereafter, Toyota was fined $1.2 billion for concealing safety defects, which at the time was the largest ever criminal penalty for a carmaker in the United States.
Pedal misapplication may be a driver-caused SUA, where the driver is accidentally depressing the accelerator pedal instead of the brake pedal. Pedal misapplication can also be caused by other items interacting with the accelerator pedal, as was the case with the loose floor mat recalls of Toyota vehicles in the past. As part of its recall of some of its vehicles, Toyota even shortened the length of the accelerator pedal to prevent the pedal from getting caught by the floor mat.
Our own SUA trial against Toyota, Uno v. Toyota, successfully showed that the common pedal misapplication defense (driver depressing gas pedal instead of brake pedal) is very difficult to establish in long distance, high speed SUAs.
In some cases, some drivers have stated that using cruise control while driving through stormy weather caused an SUA.
Other Road Users
As we demonstrated in Uno v. Toyota, SUAs can sometimes be caused by the negligence of other drivers.
In the Uno case, Noriko Uno’s Toyota was struck by another driver who chose not to fully stop at a stop sign. As a result of the impact, Noriko’s Toyota spun 180 degrees, then started to accelerate on a city street in the wrong direction to speeds of up to 100mph. Noriko tried to slow her Camry, but could not do so.
After traveling for over a half a mile on the city street, and despite using her best efforts to stop her Camry, including pulling the emergency brake, Noriko at the end had no choice but to swerve into the center median to avoid hitting two vehicles occupying the lanes ahead. After entering the median, Noriko hit a tree, went sideways, and then crashed into a bigger tree.
At the end of the crash sequence, Noriko lay lifeless in her Camry at the base of the tree.
Vehicle Age & Advances in Safety Technology
Although SUAs could be caused by faulty electronics, a significant number of them occurred in the 1980s before advanced computers in vehicles became common. Chevrolet for example issued a recall over a defective engine mount that would either cause mechanical failure or kinking of the throttle. The NHTSA received similar complaints during this period concerning Nissans, Hondas, Fords, and GMs.
After these instances, it became common to equip vehicles with gear-shift interlock systems, which decreased the likelihood of a SUA event. However, as Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety notes, the transition from non-computerized to computerized vehicles is far from perfect for eliminating SUAs: “Think about how often your computer goes down. You don’t want the computer in your car to crash. Many newer models have a drive-by wire system. These vehicles can generate their own signals or pick up some from outside.”
The Psychological Impact of Unintended Acceleration Accidents
Motor vehicle collisions of any severity can cause those involved to feel anxiety, as well as vehicle-related phobias. Some studies suggest that at least a third of all persons involved in nonfatal car accidents can experience PTSD, anxiety, depression, or phobias months after the crash.
Other studies have shown that it is common for drivers involved in motor vehicle accidents to report “significantly greater fears for personal safety” while driving than drivers who have not been involved in an accident.
Such negative psychological impacts can constitute the “non-economic losses,” such as pain and suffering, that may be remedied through compensatory damages.
Unintended Acceleration Case Focus: Uno v. Toyota
On August 28th, 2009, Noriko Uno was traveling along Euclid Avenue in Los Angeles when another driver ran a stop sign and hit her car. Noriko’s Camry was spun 180 degrees and then took off into oncoming traffic, rapidly accelerating to speeds of 100 mph. After swerving to avoid other drivers, Noriko lost control of the vehicle, clipped a pole, jumped a median, and finally crashed into a tree which tragically killed her.
That is when we stepped in and recovered an $11.9 million dollar settlement (after trial) for Noriko’s surviving husband and son. This was a bellwether trial: the first trial to go forward against Toyota from the hundreds of cases filed against it over similar defects.
Finding the Best Sudden Unintended Acceleration Attorney
If you or a loved one have been affected by a collision caused by a SUA, we may be able to help. Our attorneys have significant experience in the areas of auto defect and product liability cases and have recovered millions of dollars in compensation for clients who were involved in such unfortunate crashes.
We offer a sound, team-oriented approach when handling personal injury cases that were the result of an unintended accelerationaccident. Not only can our attorneys aggressively advocate for you in settlement or trial, but they can also guide you through the entire process with compassion and empathy. We understand the difficult situation you are in and it’s our goal to help you recover the fair compensation you are owed.
With more than 40 years of combined experience, our attorneys are focused on recovering the maximum compensation on your behalf, whether through settlement or at trial. We understand that SUA accidents can cause immeasurable damage. We handle every aspect of your claim from start to finish so you can focus on getting the treatment you need.
Our firm offers exceptional talent, abundant resources, tireless dedication, and years of experience to give you the best chance of success in obtaining maximum compensation. Led by our award-winning attorneys, Garo Mardirossian and Armen Akaragian, we are prepared to provide you with aggressive representation and personalized legal guidance you need.
Talk to a Los Angeles sudden unintended acceleration lawyer about your case or contact our firm to schedule a no-cost consultation.
Admitted to practice in 2006, Armen has arbitrated, tried, and settled several cases which have resulted in multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements.
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- What Is a Throttle Body? – UTI
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- After losing verdict, Toyota settles in sudden acceleration case – Los Angeles Times
- Jury hits Toyota with $3-million verdict in sudden acceleration death case – Los Angeles Times
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- Mental Health: Types of Mental Illness – WebMD
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- Bellwether trial – Wikipedia