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Southern California court gets Toyota lawsuits

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[April 20, 2010]  MIAMI (AP) -- A federal judge in Southern California was chosen Friday to preside over more than 200 lawsuits filed against Toyota in the aftermath of the automaker's sudden acceleration problems, which could potentially mushroom into one of the nation's biggest product liability cases.

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& Co. has paid more than $4.8 billion into a settlement fund for tens of thousands of claims from people who used its withdrawn painkiller Vioxx.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.

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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.

"The result of these decisions by Toyota was to expose millions of American drivers, passengers and pedestrians to the dangers of driving with a sticking accelerator pedal," Vincent wrote.

Toyota has until April 19 to accept or contest the original $16.4 million fine.

Selna, the judge chosen to preside over the consolidated lawsuits, was previously a partner at a Los Angeles law firm that focused on antitrust litigation.

In one of his better-known cases, last May Selna ruled that a public high school history teacher violated the First Amendment when he called creationism "superstitious nonsense" during a classroom lecture. The lawsuit was filed by a student in 2007 who claimed teacher James Corbett violated the amendment's establishment clause by making repeated comments in class that were hostile to Christian beliefs.

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.

Howard, the plaintiffs' attorney and Northeastern University law professor, 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."


Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Washington and Greg Risling in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

[Associated Press; By CURT ANDERSON]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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