Scores of lawyers are expected to converge on a courtroom in Santa Ana, California, on Thursday in the hope of persuading a US District Court judge to include them in the legal team that will spearhead a massive class-action lawsuit against Toyota.
The Japanese carmaker faces 327 separate federal and state claims, based on a report filed with the court in late April. The claims, which total billions of dollars, are for deaths, injuries and economic damage that were allegedly caused by unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
The plaintiffs include individuals, car rental operators, car dealers and insurance companies.
Toyota recalled millions of vehicles this year to fix defective accelerators and out-of-place floor mats that could cause accelerators to jam. It instructed dealers to halt sales of eight popular models for more than a week while a slim piece of steel was inserted in the accelerator mechanism.
A panel of federal judges ruled last month that the acceleration claims should be consolidated in one jurisdiction on the grounds that they involve common questions of fact.
“Centralisation will eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pre-trial rulings …and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel and the judiciary,” the panel concluded.
The stakes for the plaintiffs’ lawyers are high. In a typical class-action lawsuit the court sets aside a percentage of any award or settlement for the lawyers leading the case. If the case fails, they receive nothing.
“The amount the lawyers will have to invest will be very, very significant,” said Steve Sheller, partner in a Philadelphia law firm that has sent two lawyers to the hearing. He described the Toyota case as “immensely complicated”.
But with the prospect of a huge award or settlement, lawyers are competing aggressively for a role in the case. Jim Carter, a Georgia attorney who has joined forces with lawyers in 13 other states to pursue their clients’ cases against Toyota, said: “There’s plenty of [legal] talent to go around. We don’t know who the judge is actually going to suggest in the end.”
Mr Carter, who has lobbied for a role in the discovery stage of the case, said he expected a decision within two weeks.
Toyota has been careful not to acknowledge any legal liability for the defects that led to the recalls. It paid a record $16.4m fine to the US government last month for failing to notify the authorities promptly about the unintended acceleration problem. But it said it decided to pay “to avoid a protracted dispute and possible litigation”.
In agreeing the fine, Toyota denied it had violated the US Safety Act or other safety regulations.
“We have acknowledged that we could have done a better job of sharing relevant information within our global operations and outside the company,” Toyota said, “but we did not try to hide a defect to avoid dealing with a safety problem”.
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