Toyota could be on the hook for $200,000 over a $5,000 claim

Todd and Sally Herrington really like their 2006 Toyota Sienna  — even after they sued the giant automaker over a problem with the van’s acceleration.

A Rock County jury recently sided with the Janesville couple and awarded them $10,000 in damages after a four-day trial. Since they had offered to settle for just $5,000, they’ll get an extra $7,000 under the law, money they plan to use to try replacing the van’s transmission.

But because Toyota took such a seemingly small case all the way to trial, complete with experts, the company’s also on the hook for nearly $200,000 of the Herrington’s legal fees. That issue will be decided  later this year.

The couple’s attorney, Vince Megna of Milwaukee, called it one of the stranger cases he’s handled in his more than two decades representing car owners. He found it mind-boggling that a giant like Toyota would go to a jury over a case the couple would have settled for $5,000.

“They’d have been happy with a new transmission,” he said, which would have cost about $3,500.

A spokeswoman for Toyota in Torrance, CA issued the following statement:

 “Toyota went to trial in the Herrington matter because we stand behind the quality and reliability of our vehicles.  Specifically, in this case, both we and the dealership fully evaluated the Harringtons’ claims, including multiple test drives and extensive diagnostic analysis over a two and a half year period, and concluded that the vehicle was operating normally.  Because the matter is still pending, we cannot comment further at this time.”

According to Megna the van randomly hesitates during accelation from a stop or very slow speeds, making it dangerous to drive in traffic and through uncontrolled intersections. Megna said it is not the kind of sudden acceleration problem that dogged Toyota in much greater numbers the last couple years.

He said Toyota maintained there was no problem, but a jury found that the van was defective and that Toyota failed to repair it under warranty. They determined the difference in value between the van as warranted and with the defect was $10,000.

Though Megna is best known for cases brought under the state’s Lemon Law, which allows for a refund for defective cars, he said the Herrington’s was brought under the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, because they had not sought dealer repairs of the defect within a year of buying it new in 2006. The federal law does not provide for a refund.