Personal injury lawyers seek 'black box' data from sudden acceleration Toyotas

By Jack Zemlicka

The Daily Record Newswire

MILWAUKEE, WI -- As the recall totals of Toyota vehicles continue to climb, personal injury attorneys around the country are getting involved in suits against the automaker.

Several individual lawsuits as well as a national class action have already been filed against Toyota, stemming from its recall of more than six million vehicles.

A few Wisconsin personal injury attorneys are already actively involved in the litigation or pursuing possible suits for injuries allegedly caused by the defects.

In October, Toyota recalled about 4.2 million cars because removable floor mats were jamming the accelerators, the company said. An additional two million vehicles were recalled in January due to a sudden acceleration problem, reportedly caused by sticking gas pedals.

"My firm is majorly into them, doing several cases around the country," said Habush Habush and Rottier SC attorney and engineer Donald H. Slavik.

He said the firm has one wrongful death suit and one personal injury suit pending in California, both related to sudden acceleration incidents.

In addition, Slavik said he plans to file a wrongful death suit in Virginia and is investigating claims in Nevada and Utah.

"They are all Toyotas and all [feature] unwanted accelerations," he said. "Some are on recall lists for floor mats or the sticky pedals, but others are not."

Slavik works out of Habush's Milwaukee office and flew to Washington D.C. to sit in on a series of congressional hearings held on the problem in late February and early March.

Wrongful death in Minnesota

Eau Claire attorney Thomas K. Guelzow is looking into a possible wrongful death suit based on a December accident involving a Toyota Camry in Minnesota.

The incident involved a woman who was driving to her parents for the holidays, said Guelzow.

According to her husband, who was following in the car behind her, her car suddenly accelerated down a highway hill and collided with a pick-up truck. The woman died in the crash.

"If we win the case, I would hope not only to get compensatory damages, but ultimately punitive damages against Toyota if the facts work out the way it appears they do," said Guelzow, given how slow the manufacturer has been to address the problem.

But Guelzow, of Guelzow and Winston Ltd., conceded that the case is far from a sure thing, especially since he is still waiting for crash data stored on the car's event data recorder or "black box."

He said the analysis of that data, which can provide information on speed and braking in the seconds leading up to a collision, will likely determine whether or not there is a case.

"That five seconds of information sure should help me, but we're waiting to get that information before we proceed," he said.

Without solid evidence from a recorder or otherwise, Guelzow said attorneys are unlikely to gamble on a suit against Toyota.

"This is not simple stuff, and it costs money to play the game," he said.

Guelzow said it can be difficult and costly to even obtain the "black box" information in some Toyotas.

According to Slavik, at the congressional hearing Toyota officials claimed to have only one instrument in the country capable of reading its "black boxes," but that the company planned to bring 100 more into the United States.

But while that "would dramatically increase the ones that can be read," he stopped short of saying it would lead to more suits.

While he is getting more reports of incidents every day, Slavik noted "for every 10 people that come in with an issue, only one ends up being a case."

Another wrinkle, said Milwaukee personal injury attorney Victor C. Harding, is that people who were previously injured in sudden acceleration accidents years ago may not even own those vehicles anymore.

"Maybe nobody listened to them or ever thought Toyota was involved," he said. "By now the product is gone and the chances of pursuing those are slim to none."

Correy E. Stephenson of Lawyers USA contributed to this story.

Published: Thu, Mar 18, 2010

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