Toyota May Face First Federal Speed-Up Trial in 2013

A federal judge overseeing hundreds of lawsuits against Toyota Motor Corp. over sudden-acceleration claims said he wants the initial case to be tried in the first three months of 2013.

All pre-trial discovery of evidence should be concluded in 2012, U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana, California, said at a hearing today. He asked the lawyers for plaintiffs pursuing wrongful-death, personal-injury and economic-loss claims to be prepared to select so-called bellwether cases to be tried before him.

“I believe we have made substantial progress in this litigation,” said Selna. “We need to move forward toward our goal and that is the trial of these cases.”

The company, based in Toyota City, Japan, has recalled more than 8 million vehicles for repairs related to sudden, unintended acceleration. In September 2009, the automaker announced a recall of 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.

Toyota faces about 400 lawsuits alleging lost vehicle value or injury or death from sudden acceleration.

Bellwether Cases

Selna didn’t specify whether the 2013 trials would involve economic loss or death and injury claims. Bellwether cases are chosen from groups of lawsuits to serve as lead cases that test the strengths and weaknesses for both plaintiffs and defendants and provide an indication of what juries will or won’t award in damages.

Mark Robinson, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, and Vincent Galvin, one of Toyota’s attorneys, both told the judge today they agree with his timetable.

“We are pleased that the court has established a clear schedule for selecting bellwether cases and trial dates within 2013,” Celeste Migliori, a Toyota spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “Toyota has worked hard to ensure that this case moves forward quickly and efficiently.”

Selna has been presiding over the cases that were consolidated last year by a federal judicial panel. He will also determine whether some of the cases will be classified together as class-action, or group, lawsuits.

Selna told the lawyers today that two state-court cases involving sudden-acceleration allegations are scheduled to go to trial in Texas in February and March of next year. Wylie Aitken, who is the attorney maintaining a liaison with state cases, said during a break in the hearing that both of those cases are personal injury claims.

Selna said two more bellwether cases could be tried in 2013 after the first federal trial.

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 reporters on this story: Bill Callahan in San Diego at callahan@san.rr.com; Margaret Cronin Fisk in Southfield, Michigan, at mcfisk@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David E. Rovella at drovella@bloomberg.net.

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