Between 2009 and 2015, drivers of multiple models of Toyota vehicles reported sudden, uncontrollable accelerations. This phenomenon resulted in accidents and deaths, fueled a nationwide scandal and led to the recall of millions of presumably defective vehicles. In the last five years, Toyota has settled hundreds of claims for damages resulting from sudden acceleration accidents in courts around the country.
Toyota has never admitted liability for any of the accidents related to unintended acceleration. It has also never acknowledged that an electronic defect may be to blame, despite most of the lawsuits making that assertion.
Errant floor mats and sticky pedals
Instead, Toyota has maintained all along that the defects behind the sudden accelerations were floor mats that could slide over the accelerator, as well as sticky gas pedals. Federal regulators backed up these assertions. As part of a deferred prosecution agreement, the Department of Justice fined Toyota $1.2 billion, then a record for the auto industry, which Toyota agreed to pay.
However, not everyone believes that floor mats were the only culprit. According to an automotive safety researcher who assisted plaintiffs against Toyota, not all of the vehicles that experienced unintended accelerations had the floor mats.
Scientists and engineers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration agreed to study the Toyotas to find the cause of the unintended accelerations in 2010 at the behest of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. One of them identified “tin whiskers,” i.e., tiny crystalline growths, on the car pedals’ electronic components. The belief is that tin whiskers can cause malfunctions in electronics, and they have an established history of developing on tin parts used in other types of technology.
A press release from NASA claimed that there was no evidence of electronic malfunction causing sudden accelerations in Toyotas despite the fact that the researchers included the tin whiskers in their report. The Secretary of Transportation stated unequivocally that malfunctions were not the cause of the unintended accelerations in a press conference following the publication of the report in 2011.
Of the lawsuits relating to sudden accelerations since 2014, six are still pending at this time. This suggests a decrease in complaints over the intervening years.