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Toyota settles first death case

Car giant Toyota said it had settled the first of hundreds of lawsuits claiming that deaths and injuries were caused by problems of sudden acceleration in its vehicles.

A Toyota spokeswoman said the company reached the agreement in the wrongful death case brought by the family of Paul Van Alfen and Charlene Jones Lloyd, who were killed when their Toyota Camry slammed into a wall in Utah in 2010.

The spokeswoman would not disclose the financial terms.

Last month Toyota agreed to a settlement worth more than one billion dollars (£628 million) to resolve hundreds of lawsuits claiming economic losses suffered by Toyota owners, but hundreds more over deaths and injuries remained.

The Van Alfen case was to be the first of those tried and to serve as a bellwether for the rest. The remaining lawsuits are not affected by the settlement, Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore said.

Toyota issued a statement saying that the company and lawyers may decide to settle select cases, but "we will have a number of other opportunities to defend our product at trial". "We sympathise with anyone in an accident involving one of our vehicles," the statement said, "however we continue to stand fully behind the safety and integrity of Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control System, which multiple independent evaluations have confirmed as safe."

The Van Alfen case was the first of those tried. It had been set to go to trial in February. A second case is scheduled for May. Toyota settled a previous wrongful death lawsuit for 10 million dollars (£6.3 million) in 2010 before the current cases were consolidated in US District Court in Santa Ana, California.

In the earlier case, a California Highway Patrol officer and three of his family were killed in suburban San Diego in 2009 after their car, a Toyota-built Lexus, reached speeds of more than 120mph, hit an SUV, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames. Investigators determined that a wrong-size floor mat trapped the accelerator and caused the crash.

That discovery spurred a series of recalls involving more than 14 million vehicles and a flood of lawsuits soon followed, with numerous complaints of accelerations in several models, and brake defects with the Prius hybrid. Toyota has blamed driver error, faulty floor mats and stuck accelerator pedals for the problems.

In the accident that spawned the newly-settled case, Mr Van Alfen was driving the Camry in Utah on November 5, 2010, when it suddenly accelerated, investigators said. Skid marks showed that he tried to stop the vehicle as it exited Interstate 80, police said. The car went through a stop sign at the bottom of the ramp and through an intersection, before hitting the wall. Mr Van Alfen and Ms Lloyd, his son's fiancee, were killed. Mr Van Alfen's wife and son were injured. The Utah Highway Patrol concluded, based on statements from witnesses and the crash survivors, that the accelerator pedal was stuck.

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