Jury rejects lawsuit over alleged Toyota Camry design defect, stinky bacteria growth in AC system
Published in Automotive News
A Miami jury on Friday cleared Toyota Motor Corp. of charges that design flaws in 2012-14 Camrys caused mold to grow in the cars’ air conditioning systems that could potentially sicken drivers.
Toyota was absolved of all counts in the class action lawsuit that was initiated in July 2018. Class action status was granted in the case in December 2021, enabling plaintiffs attorneys to to proceed on behalf of nearly 91,000 Camry buyers across the country.
It claimed that Toyota misled customers who complained about the smell of “foul, noxious, and/or toxic odors” coming from their AC vents by telling them the smells were normal.
The cause, the suit charged, was a design flaw that allowed condensation to accumulate in hidden parts of the air conditioning system and cultivate microbes, bacteria, fungus and mold.
Rather than offering a permanent fix, the suits charged, Toyota issued a technical service bulletin to dealers stating that the odor was a normal characteristic of the systems and was naturally occurring.
Buyers of the affected vehicles sought repairs, financial restitution, court costs, punitive damages and compensation for the decline in retail value that occurred because of the reported smells.
In granting class-action status, U.S. District Judge Frederico Moreno allowed the plaintiffs to argue that Toyota violated Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. But he declined to certify class status based on allegations the carmaker violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
In a motion filed on March 8 near the end of the nine-day trial, Toyota argued that the Camry buyers failed to prove that moisture leading to microbial growth that caused an odor was present in any class member’s car.
Experts who examined the car belonging to lead plaintiff Javier Cardenas, the motion said, detected no odor from the air conditioning system. “In fact, turning on the HVAC system improved the air quality in Mr. Cardenas’s vehicle,” it added. “Similarly, no excess moisture was measured by any expert on behalf of either party.”
Toyota disclosed in Camry owners manuals the possibility of air conditioning system odor, the motion said, refuting the plaintiffs’ claims that the company deceptively shielded the possibility from buyers.
“It is irrelevant whether that potential for HVAC odor was due to the product’s design, its manufacture, or was simply inherent in the product itself. The legal question is whether the product performed as Toyota promised, and it did, regardless of any potential for HVAC odor,” the motion said.
On Friday, the jury determined that Toyota did not violate the deceptive and unfair trade practices act. The jury also rejected charges that Toyota “actively and willfully concealed” the defects from Camry buyers by making fraudulent statements or committing fraudulent acts.
In a written statement on Monday, a Toyota spokesman said the company is “grateful that the jury agreed with our position that there was no design defect in the 2012-2014 Camry HVAC System.” It added, “We work hard to deliver a rewarding ownership experience to our customers and stand behind the performance of our vehicles.”
Peter Pietro, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “We are disappointed but respect the jury’s verdict,” than added, “But we are likely to appeal. And we are going to keep fighting for any consumers who get taken by corporations who put profits over the welfare of their customers.”
Similar cases have moved through federal courts in recent years with mixed results.
In December 2022, a federal judge in California dismissed similar claims by a class of Toyota Prius buyers. The judge agreed with Toyota’s assertion that the lead plaintiff failed to file his suit within the required four years after noticing the smell, and that the buyer failed to properly investigate the odor after discovering it. One of the plaintiffs, Jose Javier Perez, originally filed his claim in South Florida, until the judge in the case merged his case into the one that was later dismissed.
A year earlier, in December 2021, Toyota agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by six plaintiffs alleging odor problems in a long list of vehicles built by Toyota between 2006 and 2015, including the various models of its 4Runner, Lexus, Venza, Sequoia, Highlander, Prius, Avalon and Sienna.
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