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With billion-dollar settlement Toyota tries to leave recalls behind

Toyota Motor Corp. settled for a record breaking billion-dollar amount, resolving hundreds of lawsuits claiming vehicles depreciated after the company issued recalls related to faulty acceleration. Toyota still faces lawsuits claiming injury or death related to the recalls.

By Greg RislingAssociated Press / December 27, 2012

A visitor enters a Toyota showroom in Tokyo, Thursday. Toyota Motor Corp. said it has reached a settlement worth more than $1 billion in a case involving unintended acceleration problems in its vehicles.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

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Los Angeles

With a proposed payout of more than $1 billion, one major chapter of a nearly four-year legal saga that left Toyota Motor Corp. fighting hundreds of lawsuits and struggling with a tarnished image has ended, though another remains.

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The settlement — unprecedented in its size according to a plaintiff's attorney — brings an end to claims from owners who said the value of their vehicles plunged after recalls over sudden and unintended acceleration.

Lawsuits claiming that the defects caused injury or death remain, with the first trial beginning in February unless another major deal comes first.

Steve Berman, a lawyer representing Toyota owners, said the settlement is the largest in U.S. history involving automobile defects.

"We kept fighting and fighting and we secured what we think was a good settlement given the risks of this litigation," Berman told The Associated Press.

The courtroom claims began with a highway tragedy. A California Highway Patrol officer and three of his family members were killed in suburban San Diego in 2009 after their car, a Toyota-built Lexus, reached speeds of more than 120 mph, 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, and the accident's grisliness, 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.

The Japanese automaker has blamed driver error, faulty floor mats and stuck accelerator pedals for the problems.

The runaway Lexus case was settled separately for $10 million in 2010, before the cases were consolidated by U.S. District Judge James Selna.

Selna divided them into two categories: economic loss and wrongful death. He needs to approve Wednesday's settlement, which only applies to the first group of lawsuits. The deal was filed Wednesday and Selna is expected to review it on Friday.

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