Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lawyers prepare for Toyota lawsuits

SAN DIEGO — 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 today'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 suggested 19 jurisdictions, including California — site of Toyota's U.S. headquarters — Florida, Ohio, Kentucky and even Puerto Rico, according to court documents. 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.

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Toyota has been hit with an avalanche of lawsuits that potentially could cost the company billions of dollars after 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 that Toyota should be held liable for allegedly covering up faulty electronic throttles for years.

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