The federal judge handling more than 100 lawsuits against Toyota Motor Corp over cars that raced out of control said on Thursday that he would decide by next week which plaintiffs lawyers would take a leading role in the massive litigation.
U.S. District Judge James Selna, presiding over the first court hearing in the consolidated federal cases against Toyota, vowed to keep a tight rein on the number of lawyers who would be actively involved in trying the case before him.
The lawsuits include consumer fraud class actions and personal injury claims and some lawyers have estimated that the Japanese automaker faces a potential civil liability of more than $10 billion as it struggles with an auto-safety crisis that has tarnished its image.
Cases brought in various state courts are not part of the consolidated federal litigation in front of Selna.
Complaints of runaway automobiles and other safety issues have led to the recall of more than 8.5 million Toyota vehicles worldwide, most for repairs of ill-fitting floor mats and sticking gas pedals the automaker blames for surging engines.
Attorneys from dozens of law firms have applied to be appointed lead counsel and much of the day was taken up with lawyers wooing Selna with their credentials and experience as some lobbied for a larger courtroom contingent.
RULING EXPECTED MONDAY
A four-cylinder engine is not necessarily better than an eight-cylinder engine, attorney Tim Morrison told the judge at one point, to which Selna shot back, employing his own car analogy: It depends on what the engine is pulling.
Selna also proposed a three-prong structure for handling all of the scores of claims, saying he would pick attorneys that would serve on committees to handle areas of personal injury, economic loss and discovery research.
The day ended without a formal ruling, which Selna said he expected to issue on Monday. The next hearing in the case was scheduled for May 28, when the judge will set out a schedule for filing of the first briefs.
Selna had previously designated counsel for the initial phase of the proceedings, naming three prominent trial lawyers and their firms with experience ranging from big tobacco litigation to the Enron Corp bankruptcy and claims arising from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Steve Berman of the Seattle-based firm Hagens Berman Sobel Shapiro as well as Marc Seltzer of the Los Angeles firm Susman Godfrey and Elizabeth Cabraser, a founding partner of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in San Francisco were named co-lead counsel by the judge.
Many of the lawsuits suggest the runaway acceleration problem is rooted in an as-yet unidentified electronic glitch, which Toyota has vehemently denied.
The case is: In re: Toyota Motor Corp Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices, and Product Liability Litigation, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 10-ml-02151.
(Editing by Bernard Orr)