Toyota Motor Corp's lawyers faced off with product-liability attorneys in court on Wednesday over rules for safeguarding company trade secrets in litigation stemming from complaints about its cars racing out of control.
Toyota has asked a judge to bar any confidential information it must furnish in pre-trial proceedings from being disclosed to outside experts or consultants on the plaintiffs' legal team if those experts had worked for a rival car company in the past year.
The proposed restrictions were sought as part of a protective order the judge will issue sealing from the public record any proprietary information that may compromise Toyota's competitive position during the so-called discovery process.
Plaintiff's lawyers argued Toyota's request goes too far, hampering their ability to hire first-rate automobile industry experts as they pursue scores of personal-injury and consumer class-action claims against the Japanese carmaker.
This is a very limited area of expertise, plaintiffs lawyer Mark Robinson argued in court. Most of these are people who have worked for other companies.
U.S. District Judge James Selna said he was inclined to side with plaintiffs on the issue, but thought it made sense to generally exclude current employees of Toyota's competitors as experts for the plaintiffs.
The proceeding opened at noon EDT (1600 GMT) with arguments over the general structure of the discovery process, when the two sides exchange information they need to prepare for trial.
Toyota faces a potential civil liability estimated at more than $10 billion from lawsuits sparked by complaints of runaway automobiles that also have led to worldwide recalls of more than 8 million of its vehicles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating reports that as many as 89 crash deaths since 2000 may be linked to unintended acceleration in Toyota cars.
Technical issues are at the heart of those inquiries, as well as litigation being waged in U.S. courts. The legal outcome hinges on the ability of experts hired by plaintiff's lawyers to sift through and interpret the mountain of documents those lawsuits are expected to generate.
SECOND SKIRMISH OVER DOCUMENTS
Toyota has insisted that the only defects involved in unintended acceleration of its vehicles are ill-fitting floor mats and sticking gas pedals.
But many of the lawsuits suggest that at least some of the problems with surging engines are rooted in an as-yet unidentified glitch in Toyota's electronic throttle control system, which the company has steadfastly denied.
Wednesday's hearing marks the second time the two sides have squared off in court since more than 100 separate federal lawsuits related to unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles were merged for pre-trial proceedings and assigned to Judge Selna in Orange County, California.
Toyota has said it faces nearly 230 such lawsuits, plus about 100 cases filed in state courts around the country.
Selna last month sided with the plaintiffs in giving Toyota 30 days to turn over the bulk of some 125,000 pages of documents already submitted to congressional panels and auto safety regulators. The deadline is July 2.
Those documents and many more to be turned over in future discovery proceedings all will be subject to the protective order argued in court on Wednesday.
Such an order would essentially let Toyota decide which documents and other material will be labeled as confidential -- trade secrets such as product research and design or proprietary financial and marketing information.
Those records would then be turned over to the plaintiffs but be sealed from scrutiny except by officers of the court, lawyers and their respective clerks, paralegals and other employees. As proposed by Toyota, professional experts for the plaintiffs who have worked for another car company during the past year would be excluded altogether.