Judge Issues Tentative Sanction Against Toyota in Sudden-Acceleration Trial

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The federal judge in Santa Ana assigned to Toyota's nationwide sudden-acceleration trial issued a tentative sanction against the automaker for an inspection of a crashed 2008 Toyota Camry. Judge James V. Selna writes that the inspection casts "a cloud of suspicion" over Toyota Motor Sales USA's behavior and that he will warn jurors to regard the testimony of Toyota personnel who were present at the Nov. 19, 2010, inspection with "greater caution than that of other witnesses."

However, Sela added no evidence has been presented suggesting that Toyota engaged in "Machiavellian conduct." While courtroom experts weighing in online consider the judge's sanction a blow to Toyota, they do not see it as a fatal one.

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The inspection was of a Camry driven by Paul Van Alfen, who along with one of his three passengers died in a single-car crash near Wendover, Utah, on Nov. 5, 2010. The surviving passengers were injured.

Van Alfen's family claims in a lawsuit--the centerpiece of litigation condensed from the around the country that is expected to go to trial in Selna's courtroom in February 2013--that sudden, unintended acceleration caused the crash.

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The litigants allege Toyota Motor Sales USA representatives inspected the crash vehicle and its Event Data Recorder--the car's "black box"--without their consent or presence, raising fears evidence was altered or destroyed. Toyota maintains data from the black box proves sudden acceleration did not cause the crash and justifies tossing the Van Alfen lawsuit.

"It is clear that Toyota understood it was in a pre-litigation phase when it inspected the Van Alfen vehicle," Selna writes in his sanction unveiled Wednesday. "Likewise, there is no controversy regarding the absence of plaintiffs' lawyers or experts. They were simply not given the opportunity to be present. These facts alone cast a cloud of suspicion over the November 19, 2010 inspection."

Selna adds, "failure to give plaintiffs' counsel the opportunity to attend the inspection, especially when coupled with doubt as to the overall reliability of the EDR data, warrants the imposition of some form of sanction." The judge added jurors will hear a Toyota technician removed a plastic piece lodged in the throttle body in the Van Alfen car. Saying he is unsure whether that piece played a significant part in the crash, Selna states jurors "should regard the testimony of the Toyota personnel who were present concerning the inspection of the valve and the condition of the valve with greater caution that that of other witnesses."

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