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Toyota settlement over acceleration problems to top $1 billion

Toyota has recalled more than 14 million vehicles worldwide due to acceleration problems in several models and brake defects with the Prius hybrid.
Toyota has recalled more than 14 million vehicles worldwide due to acceleration problems in several models and brake defects with the Prius hybrid. Justin Sullivan

Toyota Motor Corp. has agreed to pay as much as $1.4 billion to settle U.S. litigation claims that its vehicles suddenly and unintentionally accelerated, according to court filings made public Wednesday.

The company said the deal will resolve hundreds of lawsuits from Toyota owners who said the value of their cars and trucks plummeted after a series of recalls stemming from claims that Toyota vehicles accelerated unintentionally.

Steve Berman, a lawyer representing Toyota owners, said the settlement is the largest in U.S. history involving automobile defects.

"We kept fighting and fighting and we secured what we think was a good settlement given the risks of this litigation," Berman told The Associated Press.

The proposed deal was filed Wednesday and must receive the approval of U.S. District Judge James Selna, who was expected to review the settlement Friday.

Toyota said it will take a one-time, $1.1 billion pre-tax charge against earnings to cover the estimated costs of the settlement. Berman said the total value of the deal is between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against Toyota since 2009, when the Japanese automaker started receiving numerous complaints that its cars accelerated on their own, causing crashes, injuries and even deaths.

The cases were consolidated in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana and divided into two categories: economic loss and wrongful death. Claims by people who seek compensation for injury and death due to sudden acceleration are not part of the settlement; the first trial involving those suits is scheduled for February.

The deal includes direct payments to customers as well as the installation of a brake override system in about 3.25 million vehicles, plaintiff attorneys said. The terms also include a $250 million fund for former Toyota owners who sold vehicles at reduced prices because of bad publicity, and a separate $250 million fund for owners not eligible for the brake override system.

The settlement would also establish additional driver education programs and fund new research into advanced safety technologies.

"In keeping with our core principles, we have structured this agreement in ways that work to put our customers first and demonstrate that they can count on Toyota to stand behind our vehicles," said Christopher Reynolds, Toyota vice president and general counsel.

Current and former Toyota owners are expected to receive more information about the settlement in the coming months. Some information is also available at http://www.ToyotaELsettlement.com, a website created for Toyota owners affected by the settlement.

"We are extraordinarily proud of how we were able to represent the interests of Toyota owners, and believe this settlement is both comprehensive in its scope and fair in compensation," Berman said.

Toyota has recalled more than 14 million vehicles worldwide due to acceleration problems in several models and brake defects with the Prius hybrid. Toyota has blamed driver error, faulty floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals for the unintended acceleration.

Plaintiffs' attorneys have spent the past two years deposing Toyota employees, poring over thousands of documents and reviewing software code, but the company maintains those lawyers have been unable to prove that a design defect — namely Toyota's electronic throttle control system — was responsible for vehicles surging unexpectedly.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA were unable to find any defects in Toyota's source code that could cause problems.

The company has been dogged by fines for not reporting problems in a timely manner.

Earlier this month, NHTSA doled out a record $17.4 million fine to Toyota for failing to quickly report floor mat problems with some of its Lexus models. Toyota paid a total of $48.8 million in fines for three violations in 2010.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda appeared before Congress last year and pledged to strengthen quality control. Recent sales figures show the company appears to have rebounded following its safety issues.

Information from the Associated Press and Reuters was included in this report.