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Attorneys Meet In San Diego To Sharpen Tools To Sue Toyota

As lawsuits over Toyota acceleration problems multiply nationwide, more than 150 attorneys gathered Wednesday to sharpen their legal tools on the eve of a major federal court hearing on whether dozens of cases will be consolidated before a single judge.

The main topic at the conference, organized by legal publisher HarrisMartin, was Thursday's scheduled hearing before a panel of federal judges in San Diego who will choose whether to combine more than 100 Toyota lawsuits and where to send them.

Lawyers for people suing Toyota and the company itself have already suggested 19 jurisdictions, including California - site of Toyota's U.S. headquarters - Florida, Ohio, Kentucky and even Puerto Rico, according to court documents. But the panel is not required to pick from that list.

"You have consumers that have been affected in every state," said Howard Bushman, a Miami attorney whose recent cases included a $24 million settlement for AIDS patients who paid for a drug they didn't need.

Toyota has been hit with an avalanche of lawsuits that potentially could cost the company billions of dollars following its recall of more than 8 million vehicles worldwide over sudden unexpected acceleration, including about 6 million in the U.S. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has linked 52 deaths to the accelerator problems, which Toyota has blamed on floor mats that can snag accelerator pedals or pedals that sometimes stick.

At least initially, the panel of seven judges - formally known as the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, or MDL for short - will decide whether to combine dozens of proposed class-action lawsuits filed by Toyota owners who claim their vehicles have dropped sharply in value because of the recalls. Those owners also claim that Toyota has not been forthcoming about the possible role its electronic throttle controls play in the acceleration incidents, which Toyota has repeatedly denied.

But attorneys said there are many more Toyota lawsuits that could eventually wind up before the same judge as these so-called consumer cases, including those filed seeking damages for vehicle crashes and those brought by Toyota owners who want to return their vehicles for a new one. Still other lawsuits claim Toyota should be held liable for allegedly covering up faulty electronic throttles for years.

"What is probably most important is the ability of a judge to manage litigation of this size," said Mitchell Briet of New York, who has been involved in major class-action cases involving Bank of America debit card fees and an environmental contamination case against Honeywell Inc. "It will come down to who's the best judge for the job."

Seminars like the one held Wednesday have become commonplace when major litigation is filed, in part because attorneys are generally required by state bars to get a certain amount continuing legal education each year. But it also allows them to compare notes and discuss strategies for lawsuits in national class-action cases such those involving asbestos cancer claims, faulty Chinese drywall and the painkiller Vioxx formerly marketed by Merck & Co.

"This was not designed to be a Toyota-bashing fest," said Richard Arsenault, an attorney from Alexandria, La., who co-chaired the conference. "It's not meant to anoint someone as a leader.

It's an academic, diverse enterprise where we spend the entire day talking about auto product liability."

Toyota attorneys did not attend Wednesday's session and the company declined comment.

The panel on Thursday intends to decide on consolidation and location of the Toyota cases in about two weeks, according its chairman, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II of Kentucky.

Other key questions the chosen Toyota judge will have to resolve include:

-Whether to certify the cases as a national class action representing all affected Toyota owners and deciding which cases get included in the group.

-Ruling on a likely Toyota attempt to win dismissal of the case.

-Which state's laws should apply to cases from all 50 states, which have different rules for such things as punitive damage levels, evidence and the like.

-Choosing a few test or "bellwether" cases for trial to set the standard for all the others.

The 19 jurisdictions suggested for consolidation of the cases are: two federal court districts each in California, Florida and New York; and districts in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, West Virginia, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Georgia and Arkansas.

Associated Press writer Greg Risling in San Diego contributed to this story.

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