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Toyota Sanctioned In Sudden Acceleration Lawsuit

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The National Law Journal reported last week that the federal judge overseeing the first trials on Toyota's sudden acceleration problem had tentatively issued a sanction against Toyota after finding that a Toyota defense lawyer inspected a victim's vehicle without first contacting the victim's lawyers, which cast a "cloud of suspicion".

Judge Selna – overseeing the sudden acceleration cases – found that Toyota violated his order to preserve data by failing to contact lawyers for the crash victims before conducting the inspection.

It is clear that Toyota understood it was in a pre-litigation phase when it inspected the Van Alfen vehicle. It is equally clear that Toyota understood that the Van Alfen family was represented by counsel…. They were simply not given the opportunity to be present. These facts alone cast a cloud of suspicion over the … inspection.

While Judge Selna found Toyota's conduct to be improper, he did not see evidence to suggest that Toyota actually altered data during the inspection. As such, Judge Selna indicated an instruction to the jury would be sufficient to cure Toyota's breach, though what the instruction might say is unclear. The National Law Journal indicated the instruction my shift the burden of proof from the Plaintiffs to Toyota.

Toyota's defense lawyer last out against the sanction.

"If I'd known then I'd be faced with a motion, and the court would base a sanction on a duty that doesn't exist in the law, I would have done everything differently. To put us in a position that affects our ability to defend the merits of this case because your honor thinks we should have made a call – that just isn't correct. It's not consistent with the law, and I think it's beyond the discretion the court has."

Parties – and their lawyers – have a duty to preserve evidence and not perform any inspection or testing that might jeopardize or compromise the evidence in the case. If a party or its lawyer intentionally (or even negligently) destroys or alters evidence in a case, the conduct is called spoliation. Spoliation of evidence makes it much more difficult on the opposing party to prove their case or present their defense. In such circumstances, courts regularly issue sanctions on the party who destroyed or altered the evidence. Most frequently, the sanction is made in the form of a presumption instruction that informs the jury of the party's conduct in destroying and altering evidence and instructs the jury to presume the evidence would have been unfavorable to the party that destroyed it, unless some other evidence is presented to rebut the presumption.

The case at issue is the first sudden acceleration bellwether trial and set for February 19, 2013. Bellwether trials are often used as predictors for other similar cases in mass tort or multi-district litigation like the Toyota sudden acceleration lawsuits. There have been approximately 100 injury or wrongful death cases filed against Toyota alleging a sudden acceleration defect.

[Learn more about Toyota Sudden Acceleration]

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