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Insurers gang up on Toyota

By Jay MacDonald ·
Friday, January 14, 2011
Posted: 10 am ET

Toyota rang in the New Year with a nasty case of déjà vu as seven U.S. auto insurance companies gang-tackled the automaker in court over crashes they claim were caused by a mysterious sudden-acceleration problem.

The Los Angeles Times reports that lawsuits filed last week in Los Angeles County Superior Court seek damages in excess of $230,000 for 14 auto insurance claims across the country caused by "a defect that causes sudden uncontrolled acceleration to speeds of up to 100 mph or more."

The plaintiffs include American Automobile Insurance Co., Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., National Surety Corp., Ameriprise Insurance Co., IDS Property Casualty Insurance Co., Motorists Mutual Insurance Co. and American Hardware Mutual Insurance Co.

"The insurers cite data that blames 725 crashes on the problem and fault Toyota for failing to equip its cars with an override system that would cause a car to idle if the brake and gas were deployed simultaneously," the story says.

Toyota spent most of 2010 trying to rebuild its brand following a plague of recalls for various, potentially deadly operational glitches, problems occasionally made worse by the automaker's sometimes baffling explanations. In the case of the acceleration debacle, Toyota maintains that sticky gas pedals and bulky floor mats were the sole culprits rather than a malfunction in its electronic throttle control system, as the lawsuits claim.

Several months ago, Allstate sued Toyota for $3 million to recover claims it paid on 270 crashes.

The automaker reportedly paid $10 million to relatives of four people who were killed in an August 2009 crash when a Lexus ES 350 accelerated out of control in suburban San Diego. Federal highway safety inspectors found design flaws in that gas pedal that could cause it to become lodged under a floor mat.

In a statement, Toyota said the latest lawsuits are without merit and "common between insurers and automakers."

Given Toyota's insistence that there are no troublesome ghosts in it onboard computers, it's no surprise that the automaker apparently refused the standard practice of subrogation in which manufacturers reimburse auto insurance companies for damages they create.

Insurance lawsuits aren't the only obstacles in Toyota's high beams this year. A California federal court has consolidated dozens of civil suits by relatives of those killed and injured in acceleration-related crashes. Angry Toyota owners also have launched their own class-action suit claiming that the fallout from the hinky accelerators diminished the value of their vehicles.

Who's in the right? It looks like 2011 will be the year we find out.

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