A judicial panel consolidated the ever-growing list of cases before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna, 65, a 2003 appointee of former President George W. Bush. Selna's court is in Orange County, Calif., near Los Angeles and close to Toyota's U.S. headquarters.
"This is a big milestone in what will be a very historic case," said Tim Howard, a Northeastern University law professor who leads a group of attorneys in 26 states who are suing Toyota.
Attorneys estimate that if Toyota were to settle the cases for even a modest payout to affected motorists, it could cost the company at least $3 billion and possibly much more. In comparison, drugmaker Merck & Co. has paid more than $4.8 billion into a settlement fund for tens of thousands of claims from people who used its withdrawn painkiller Vioxx.
Selna, one of six federal judges in Orange County, will hear important pretrial motions for all cases, eventually leading to trial, settlement or dismissal of the lawsuits. Selna declined comment through a spokeswoman.
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.
Toyota, in a statement, said it is "pleased with the decision and the location" of the consolidation of lawsuits.
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 millions of similar Toyota owners as a single class, meaning all would be affected by a potential damages award or settlement.
At least 100 other lawsuits seek damages from Toyota for injuries or deaths attributed to sudden acceleration, which the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation 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.
NHTSA said in a letter to Toyota released Friday that it is considering a second civil penalty against the automaker because the accelerator pedals at issue "exhibit two separate defects that may require two separate remedies," NHTSA chief counsel O. Kevin Vincent wrote.