AUTO

Toyota to Face California Justice

MIAMI - A panel of federal judges on Friday chose Southern California federal court as the location to consolidate dozens of lawsuits filed in the aftermath of Toyota's recall of millions of vehicles over sudden unexpected acceleration problems.

The decision by the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralizes more than 200 lawsuits against Toyota around the country before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna, a 2003 appointee of former President George W. Bush.

Selna, 65, whose court is located near Los Angeles in Orange County, Calif., will hear important pretrial motions for all cases, eventually leading to trial, settlement or dismissal of the lawsuits.

Attorney Mark Robinson Jr., who practices in Orange County and is representing Toyota owners in some of the cases, said Selna has broad experience with more than 28 years as a practicing lawyer before his appointment to the federal bench.

"He's a very skilled judge. He will do everything appropriately," said Robinson, who is best known for negotiating a $128 million settlement in a case involving exploding fuel tanks on the Ford Pinto.

More than 130 lawsuits are potential class-action cases filed by Toyota owners who claim their vehicles plummeted in value after the recalls. A key early decision in those cases is whether to establish all similar Toyota owners as a single class, meaning all would be affected by a potential damage award or settlement.

At least 100 other lawsuits seek damages from Toyota for injuries or deaths attributed to sudden acceleration, which the judicial panel determined should also be part of the centralized case.

"The liability discovery in all the cases will certainly overlap," the panel said in its ruling.

The lawsuits began appearing last fall as Toyota initiated the first of a series of recalls eventually involving about 8 million vehicles — including about 6 million in the U.S. — over acceleration problems in several models and brake issues with the popular Prius hybrid.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has linked 52 deaths to acceleration problems, this week imposed a record $16.4 million fine on the Japanese automaker for failing to disclose its safety problems to the government in a timely manner.

That fine could pale in comparison to potential damages in the lawsuits, which could easily exceed $3 billion, according to plaintiff's attorneys. But it will take months or longer for that to play out.

Many of the lawsuits blame the acceleration problems on glitches in Toyota's electronic throttle controls, which the company has repeatedly denied. The company traces the issue to sometimes-sticky acceleration pedals and accelerators that can become jammed in floor mats.

Toyota favored Los Angeles as the location for consolidation of the lawsuits, near its U.S. headquarters in Torrance, Calif., and a relatively easy trip from Japan. Other attorneys suing Toyota pushed for Kentucky — where Toyota has a large plant and engineering facility — as well as Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, New York and elsewhere.

Toyota did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Tim Howard, an attorney and Northeastern University law professor who leads a group of lawyers suing Toyota in 26 states, said the California location makes sense and also presents some obstacles.

"There are a lot of efficiencies because the corporate headquarters is there. It's easy to get flights to Japan," Howard said. "But there are some challenges, because a lot of the evidence is nationwide and the cases are nationwide."