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TOYOTA CLEARED IN ROAD RAGE CRASH
Judge enters final order in 4Runner rollover trial
STOCKTON, CA - On July 9, 2004, Judge K. Peter Sears of San Joaquin County Superior Court entered final judgment in favor of Toyota Motor Corporation and Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., ending a four-year legal battle challenging the handling, stability, and roof strength of the 1995 4Runner SUV. This follows a May 21 unanimous defense verdict after a 3 ½ month trial in Lily Kephart, et al. v. Toyota Motor Corporation, et al. -- the first such defense verdict in six years for the popular SUV line.
The case arose out of a road rage incident between plaintiff Huan Kephart and co-defendant Duncan Graham on October 17, 1999. Kephart was driving his 1995 Toyota 4Runner along Interstate 205 in Tracy, CA. His wife, Lily, was in the front passenger seat and his three sons were in the back seat and rear cargo area. Mr. and Mrs. Kephart were both belted.
That afternoon, Kephart encountered a 1997 Pontiac Grand Am, driven by Graham. Graham was merging with traffic from the entrance ramp when he abruptly pulled in front of the Kephart vehicle. Upon being “cut off” by Graham, the vehicles engaged in a series of reckless driving maneuvers that ultimately led to Kephart being run off the roadway. Upon trying to reenter the freeway at a high rate of speed, Kephart’s SUV overturned and rolled 2 ¾ times over a distance of 100 feet. As a result of the accident, Mrs. Kephart was rendered a quadriplegic.
Plaintiffs asserted a number of negligence and strict liability claims against Toyota. Chief among them were allegations all 1995 4Runners were defective and unreasonably dangerous in their design due to inadequate roof strength and poor handling and stability characteristics. Plaintiffs used a number of expert witnesses in support of those claims, including Carl Nash and Donald Friedman (injury mechanism, defect and causation).
During trial, Toyota presented evidence which showed the roof structure on the 1995 4Runner not only met the applicable FMVSS, but also exceeded it by a large margin. Indeed, Toyota showed this vehicle would have met even the unrealistic rollover performance criteria endorsed by plaintiffs’ own experts. Toyota further demonstrated that Friedman had seriously misinterpreted the Malibu data, calling many of his generic rollover opinions into question.
After 53 days of testimony, the jury deliberated for little more than two hours before exonerating Toyota. Plaintiffs had asked the jury for a multi-million award.
The Honorable K. Peter Sears
San Joaquin County Superior Court, State of California
Case No. CV-011499
Toyota was represented by David W. Graves, Jr. and James W. Halbrooks, Jr. of Bowman and Brooke LLP in Minneapolis.
Plaintiffs were represented by James McMannis and Colleen Duffy Smith of McMannis Faulkner & Morgan in San Jose, California.