Toyota Judge Names Lead Attorneys to Handle Sudden-Acceleration Lawsuits

The federal judge overseeing sudden- acceleration lawsuits against Toyota Motor Corp. appointed 21 plaintiffs’ lawyers to manage litigation involving U.S. claims.

Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, faces at least 228 federal and 99 state lawsuits including proposed class actions over economic loss and claims of personal injuries or deaths caused by sudden-acceleration incidents. The federal lawsuits were combined April 9 in a multidistrict litigation, or MDL, before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana, California.

More than 70 plaintiffs’ lawyers sought appointments to leadership positions in the federal lawsuits, including about 60 who spoke at a May 13 hearing before Selna. Before the hearing, Selna proposed limiting the number of plaintiffs’ attorneys on leadership committees to 12.

“The court became convinced at the initial hearing that a larger group of counsel is needed to meet the needs of the case,” the judge said in yesterday’s order. Selna set the next hearing in the lawsuits for May 28.

The company, based in Toyota City, Japan, has recalled more than 8 million vehicles for fixes related to sudden, unintended acceleration. The automaker announced in September that it was recalling 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles because of a defect that may cause floor mats to jam accelerator pedals. The company later recalled vehicles over defects involving the pedals themselves.

Class Actions

All the class actions and most of the individual lawsuits were filed after September, when Toyota began the first of several recalls.

Selna appointed as co-lead counsels for the economic loss plaintiffs Steve Berman at Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP in Seattle, Marc M. Seltzer at Susman Godfrey LLP in Los Angeles and Frank Pitre at Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame, California.

He appointed Elizabeth Cabraser at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP in San Francisco and Mark P. Robinson Jr. at Robinson Calcagnie & Robinson in Newport Beach, California, as co-leads for personal injury and death cases. Cabraser’s firm has filed at least 20 lawsuits against Toyota claiming deaths or injuries caused by unintended acceleration incidents, and Robinson has won multiple million-dollar verdicts against automakers.

‘Meeting Every Day’

The lawyers appointed “will be meeting every day,” starting next week, to consider legal theories in the lawsuits, Berman said yesterday in an interview. “Cases are still being filed,” he said.

The economic loss and personal injury committees will each have nine members, including the lead counsel. Selna also appointed three lawyers as plaintiffs’ liaison counsel for state and related federal cases while naming Monica R. Kelly, of Ribbeck Law in Chicago as a consultant to the committees on foreign law issues.

Kelly asked Selna on May 13 to create a separate class of plaintiffs for people from nations including Mexico and Germany as well as countries in the Middle East. Such a class would cover as many as 4 million people, she argued in court.

Selna last month named Berman, Seltzer and Cabraser as interim lead attorneys for the first stage of the litigation. On April 30, those lawyers submitted a slate of 18 attorneys for leadership positions.

“He made some changes, particularly on the consumer side,” Berman said.

Selna added four attorneys who weren’t on the slate to the economic loss committee. They include Michael Louis Kelly of Kirtland & Packard in El Segundo, California, who has filed multiple class actions, and Jerome Ringler, of Ringler Kearney Alvare in Los Angeles, who represents car rental agencies in the litigation.

The cases are combined as In re Toyota Motor Corp. Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation, 8:10-ml-02151, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Santa Ana).

To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit at mcfisk@bloomberg.net.

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