Toyota settles with owners taken for a ride by stuck accelerators

The Prius was one of the great automobile success stories of the last decade. Toyota's hybrid took off very fast -- too fast, it turned out, when owners found their accelerators sticking. And yesterday, Toyota said it had reached a settlement worth over $1 billion with car owners who'd sued over the defects -- and the accidents that resulted. In "The Prius Can Take Owners on a Wild Ride," an April 2009 Westword cover story, Paul Knight detailed some of the problems that owners had encountered with their hybrids. Here's his account of what happened to Ted and Elizabeth James of Eagle:

Ted James, a middle-school math teacher in Eagle, had received a $10,000 Toyota Time grant given to 35 math teachers around the country to develop inventive programs. James used his money to buy equipment to monitor the water quality of a local watershed, and his students used advanced math techniques to analyze the data they collected.

In 2002, Toyota paid for James, along with the other Toyota Time winners, to travel to company headquarters and talk about their projects. During a lunch break one day, Toyota executives introduced the group to the Prius. Each teacher was outfitted with one of the hybrids for a day of driving around Torrance. "I thought they were the coolest thing ever," James remembers. He and his wife, Elizabeth, an elementary-school teacher, bought their first Prius three years later.

"I was very proud because we were the first teachers in the parking lot to be sporting a Prius," he says.

On August 10, 2006, Elizabeth James was driving the car east on Interstate 70 toward Denver to catch an early-morning flight. Near the small town of Lawson, she pressed the brakes to slow down, and when she let off the pedal, the Prius took off. The car wouldn't slow down "no matter how hard I pressed on the brake," she remembers, so she used her left foot to slam down the emergency brake. Nothing.

The brakes spewed blue smoke from the back of the car, and when Elizabeth glanced down, the speedometer displayed 90 mph and the Prius was rocketing toward a car in the slow lane. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, Elizabeth whipped around that car along the shoulder of the interstate, exited the Lawson ramp, ran a stop sign, passed a couple of people walking in the road and steered into a grassy field when the feeder cut to the left.

"She said she felt like the pilot of a plane that was trying to crash-land," Ted James says. "So she was looking for a place to crash the car, and that was one of the things that were really tough: She thought she was going to die and had enough time to think about it."

The Prius sped through a wooded area, clipped a weather monitoring shed, flipped and landed in a river.

Elizabeth survived the wreck, but her legs and back were banged up and she still hobbles, despite a year's worth of physical therapy. Scar tissue on her intestines requires her to drink MiraLAX for the rest of her life to ease stomach pains.

After the crash, Ted James enlisted the help of a childhood friend, attorney Kent Spangler (who practiced family law at the time and now is a magistrate in Fort Collins), to steer the Jameses through arbitration with Toyota. They wanted Elizabeth's medical bills -- about $15,000 -- paid and to have the smashed Prius examined for a cause of the wreck. "You'd think Toyota would be interested in how their car functioned in that crash," James says. "My wife's brother and sister owned Priuses, and we were really worried that this could happen to someone else. Toyota's whole reaction was really disconcerting. It was like 'deny everything.'"

And that's just one of the many, many stories that Prius owners told Toyota -- and then their lawyers.

Now the suits have apparently been settled; read the Los Angeles Times piece on the Toyota settlement here. From our archives: "The Prius can take owners on a wild ride."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun