Thursday, March 25, 2010
SAN DIEGO Attorneys for Toyota Motor Corp. and people suing the Japanese automaker over sudden acceleration problems urged a federal panel Thursday to consolidate more than 200 lawsuits before a single judge, with Los Angeles federal court emerging as the favored venue.
Toyota's lead lawyer, Cari Dawson of Atlanta, told the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation that the company favors combining all personal injury and wrongful death cases before the California court, along with all potential class-action lawsuits filed by Toyota owners who claim safety recalls caused the vehicles to lose value.
Los Angeles is close to Toyota's U.S. headquarters in Torrance, where many key documents and witnesses crucial for all the cases are located, Dawson said. In addition, the first potential class-action case was filed there in November.
"All these cases have common issues. There will be significant overlap," Dawson told the judges. "The Central District of California is uniquely qualified."
Several of the 24 plaintiffs attorneys who spoke at the hearing also favored Los Angeles, which already has at least 34 pending Toyota cases, most of them before U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz.
"We feel the center of gravity is in California," said attorney Mark Robinson, known nationally for many class-action lawsuits and for negotiating a $128 million settlement in a case involving exploding fuel tanks on the Ford Pinto.
Others attorneys have said, however, that a different site might eliminate an appearance of hometown bias.
Some plaintiffs lawyers favored centralizing the cases in Kentucky, where Toyota has a large plant and engineering facility, or in Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, New York and elsewhere.
Lawyers said Toyota currently faces 138 potential class-action lawsuits over falling vehicle values and about 97 personal injury and wrongful death cases in federal courts nationwide.
Thursday's 45-minute hearing took place in a packed courtroom where attorneys literally lined the walls and flowed out the doors to the hallway outside. Five of the seven judges on the multidistrict litigation panel took part in the hearing, including its chairman, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II of Kentucky.
Several times, the room exploded in laughter when attorneys cooed to Heyburn about how they were rooting for the University of Kentucky basketball team in Thursday night's NCAA tournament game against Cornell. Heyburn had opened the hearing by joking that the lawyers shouldn't try to "curry favor" with him by mentioning the game.
"My opening comments were really an opportunity to get everybody off the hook," said Heyburn, a 1976 UK law school graduate.
The panel expects to make a decision in about two weeks. It will set the stage for eventual trial or settlement of lawsuits that could cost Toyota billions of dollars in damages.
Stephen Sheller, a Philadelphia attorney, said he favors having more than one judge appointed because of the volume and complexity of the lawsuits.
"I don't think it will happen here, but it may," he said.
The judge or judges chosen will make several key decisions, including whether all Toyota owners affected by the recalls should be treated as a single class that would split any award for the vehicles' lost value. Toyota also has already filed motions to dismiss some of the cases.
The lawsuits have been popping up on court dockets nationwide following Toyota's recalls involving some 8 million vehicles, including about 6 million in the U.S., over sticky gas pedals, pedals that can get stuck under floor mats and braking problems on its Prius hybrid.
There are also separate lawsuits filed by investors who blame Toyota stock losses on the recalls.
Toyota has blamed the sudden acceleration problems on floor mats and accelerators that sometimes stick. Most of the owner lawsuits, however, trace the incidents to faulty electronic throttle controls that they say Toyota has been aware of and covered up for nearly a decade.
The automaker has repeatedly denied its electronics are the cause.
Similar lawsuits filed in different locations are frequently centralized in one place. About 92,000 lawsuits - 48,000 of them involving cancer-causing asbestos - have been consolidated by the multidistrict litigation panel before 240 federal judges, according to the panel's Web site.
Associated Press Writer Greg Risling contributed to this report.