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Calif. judge finalizing $1 billion settlement for lost car values in Toyota acceleration cases

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SANTA ANA, Calif. - A California judge said Friday that he's finalizing a settlement worth more than $1 billion in cases where motorists say the value of their Toyota vehicles plunged after recalls over claims they unexpectedly accelerated.

U.S. District Judge James Selna said he was approving the deal that was announced in December and will affect 22 million consumers.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against Toyota since 2009, when the Japanese automaker started receiving numerous complaints that its cars accelerated on their own, causing crashes, injuries and even deaths. More than 14 million vehicles have been recalled since the claims surfaced.

Toyota has denied the allegations, blaming driver error, faulty floor mats and stuck accelerator pedals for the problems.

Steve Berman, an attorney representing Toyota owners, has said the settlement is the largest in U.S. history involving automobile defects. He added that Selna called the deal extraordinary three times during a hearing Friday in Orange County.

An email message left for Toyota was not immediately returned. The company had previously said it will take a one-time, $1.1 billion pre-tax charge against earnings to cover the estimated costs of the settlement.

The cases were consolidated before Selna and divided into two categories: economic loss and wrongful death. Toyota has settled a couple of wrongful death cases, and the first one to go to trial is scheduled to begin in a Los Angeles courtroom next week.

As part of the economic loss settlement, Toyota will offer cash payments from a pool of about $250 million to eligible customers who sold vehicles or turned in leased vehicles between September 2009 and December 2010.

The company will launch a $250 million program for 16 million current owners to provide supplemental warranty coverage for certain vehicle components, and it will retrofit about 3.2 million vehicles with a brake override system, which is designed to ensure a car will stop when the brakes are applied, even if the accelerator pedal is depressed.

The settlement also sets up additional driver education programs and funds new research into advanced safety technologies.

The main contention in the remaining wrongful death cases is whether a design defect — namely an electronic throttle control system — was responsible for Toyota vehicles surging unexpectedly.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA were unable to find any defects in the automaker's source code that could cause problems.

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