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Tales of Terror and Loss in Toyota-related Deaths

Publication: The Los Angeles Times

Authors: Stuart Pfeifer, Carol Williams and Robert Faturechi

One car barreled through a stop sign, struck a tree and landed upside down in a Texas lake, drowning four people. Another tore across an Indiana street and crashed into a jewelry store. A third raced to an estimated 100 mph on a California street before striking a telephone pole, killing a restaurant owner.

At least 56 people have died in U.S. traffic accidents in which sudden, unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles has been alleged, according to a Los Angeles Times review of public records and interviews with authorities.

In the past decade, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received complaints of 34 deaths related to sudden acceleration of Toyotas, far more than any other automaker. At least 22 more deaths related to acceleration problems have been alleged in lawsuits and police reports.

The NHTSA database does not disclose whether the complaints were valid, and none of the allegations has been proved in court. Still, the growing number of people who blame Toyotas for deaths and injuries comes at a difficult time for the world’s largest automaker, which has issued safety recalls on nearly 10 million vehicles worldwide.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons declined to comment, saying the company does not discuss cases in which litigation has been, or might be, filed. The company has said that it is confident that all models whose pedals could stick have been identified and that recalls will address all problems.

Umni Suk Chung screamed, “No brakes! No brakes! No brakes!” as her Lexus RX330 sped along the shoulder of Interstate 10 in West Los Angeles.

Chung’s SUV was going nearly 80 mph when it smashed into a Mercedes. The Lexus overturned, killing Chung’s sister-in-law, Esook Synn, in the back seat. Chung and another passenger were badly injured.

A woman who said she witnessed the accident said that she could see a “look of terror” on Chung’s face before the Dec. 15, 2008, crash.

“They looked like they lost control of the car. The car did not look like it was decelerating at all, as if the accelerator was stuck or something,” the woman wrote on the Los Angeles Fire Department Web site.

Synn’s relatives have retained an attorney, Larry Grassini, who said he believes an electronic system malfunction caused the vehicle to accelerate while rendering the brakes useless. The Lexus RX330 is not among the models recently recalled by Toyota for unintended acceleration problems.

Toyota officials analyzed data from the Lexus’ “black box” and determined that it was traveling 78 mph at the time of the crash, according to a report by the California Highway Patrol.

Eleven months after the crash, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged Chung with gross vehicular manslaughter without alcohol impairment and reckless driving causing injury, both felonies. Before the accident, she had a clean driving record.

“This case got filed and investigated before anybody knew about the problems with these Toyotas,” said Richard Hutton, Chung’s criminal defense attorney.

“It’s been hell for her,” he said.

Paramedics found Juanita Grossman with both feet still pressing the brake pedal.

Alert but critically injured, she said her 2003 Toyota Camry had inexplicably accelerated March 16, 2004, as she left a drive-through pharmacy, raced across a street and slammed into a jewelry store in Evansville, Ind.

“It was like a car on a slingshot,” said her son, Bill.

Grossman, 77, died six days later. In the days before her death, she described a car racing forward as she sat helpless behind the wheel, her feet jamming the brakes without effect, her son said.

“She kept emphatically saying that the accelerator stuck on her,” her son said.

The 2003 Camry is not among the models Toyota recently recalled.

Relatives considered legal action against the company. They decided against it, worried that the legal costs of going up against the world’s largest automaker would overwhelm them.

“It would have been the giant versus the little guy,” Bill Grossman said.

On the day after Christmas 2009, Monty Hardy and three members of his church were proselytizing in a Dallas suburb. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were traveling in Hardy’s 2008 Avalon about 30 mph when the car suddenly accelerated, raced through a stop sign and left the road, crashing into a fence and a tree and landing upside down in a small lake, according to a police report.

All four drowned.

Hardy, 56, and his wife had recently received a recall notice from Toyota; it said the car’s floor mats had a propensity to cause the accelerator to stick. The couple had removed the mats and placed them in the trunk, said Randy Roberts, an attorney representing Linda Hardy in a planned lawsuit against the carmaker.

The couple had also taken the car into a dealership to have problems with its acceleration system examined, Roberts said.

“To me, it’s pretty obvious that this was your classic acceleration problem,” Roberts said. “The man had a perfect driving record. He’s out doing work for his church the morning after Christmas.”

Jose Madrigal, a Mexican immigrant and a Catholic, made the sign of the cross each time he took a drive.

“My father was not very comfortable getting in a car,” said his daughter, Adelina Aguilera.

On March 9, Madrigal was a passenger in a 2009 Corolla driven by his wife, Adelina.

His wife, 71, said the car suddenly accelerated, even as she applied the brakes. To avoid approaching cars, she swerved onto the wrong side of the road, struck a car and crashed into a concrete wall beneath Interstate 605, according to a Downey, Calif., police accident report.

Jose Madrigal, 89, was critically injured and died March 25.

Downey police officer Sean Penrose did not believe Adelina Madrigal’s account. He issued her a speeding ticket and wrote in his report that she must have applied the gas pedal instead of the brakes.

On April 15, she paid a fine, and the case was closed, according to Department of Motor Vehicles records.

In the months to follow, Toyota issued two recalls for the 2009 Corolla, one for floor mats that could cause the accelerator pedal to stick and another for a gas pedal prone to sticking.

Noriko Uno left her Upland, Calif., home Aug. 28 to do some grocery shopping and deposit receipts from the family’s sushi restaurant. She was driving at about the 30 mph limit when her 2006 Camry suddenly sped up to nearly 100 mph. Witnesses reported seeing the 66-year-old woman tearing along the road, gripping the wheel, her face frozen in terror, trying to steer out of traffic and away from pedestrians.

The car struck a telephone pole, veered into some shrubbery, became airborne and crashed into a tree. When emergency workers extracted her body from the vehicle, they noted that the hand brake had been pulled up in an attempt to halt the speeding car.

Uno’s husband, Yasuharu, and adult son, Jeffrey, at first were mystified about what could have caused the bookkeeper to be traveling at such a dangerous speed. They now assume unintended acceleration caused the accident that killed their family’s matriarch. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Toyota on Feb. 4.

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