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Toyota Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Jockey to Lead Lawsuits

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May 13 (Bloomberg) -- Several dozen lawyers asked a federal judge in California today to appoint them to leadership positions over lawsuits against Toyota Motor Corp. related to sudden acceleration.

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.

Attorneys from more than 70 firms filed requests seeking to be appointed by Selna as lead counsel or committee members for the litigation, the judge said in court papers May 11. He heard applicants’ arguments at an initial organizing conference today.

“Together we are beginning a daunting, but, I think, doable task,” Selna said at the opening of the hearing. He said he was confident that a result would be achieved “that will be fair to all.”

The Toyota City, Japan-based company 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.

Toyota ‘Confident’

“Toyota is confident the legal process will be conducted with integrity and fairness,” the company said today in a statement on the opening of the litigation. “Recently we have seen instances where the facts did not support the initial claims and sensational reports. In the best interest of all those involved, it’s important to keep this in mind as the case proceeds and facts are presented.”

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

Selna will oversee the lawsuits, deciding such issues as evidence-gathering and allowable legal arguments, as well as leadership structure. In a tentative ruling before the hearing Selna proposed limiting the number of plaintiffs’ attorneys on leadership committees to 12. The lawyers said the number should be increased because of the complexity of the litigation.

Ruling by May 17

“I’ve heard loud and clear from both sides of the aisles that the court’s tentative is a bit leaner than you feel is needed,” he said. Selna said he would issue his ruling on leadership no later than May 17.

Almost five dozen lawyers asked the judge to appoint them to leadership positions in the case. Many of them touted long histories of legal experience and billions of dollars in damages won in settlements or trials against such defendants as Ford Motor Co. and Exxon Mobil Corp.

Selna was asked today to create a separate class of plaintiffs from foreign countries including Mexico and Germany and from the Middle East. The class would cover as many as 4 million people and is needed because courts in these countries don’t provide the same legal remedies as the U.S. justice system, said attorney Monica R. Kelly, of Ribbeck Law in Chicago. Selna didn’t rule on that request.

Lawyers Designated

Selna last month designated four attorneys to serve as counsel for Toyota and plaintiffs, asking them submit a report to him on the critical legal issues, any pending motions, discovery requests and a list of all known related cases and parties.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers appointed “are not a precursor of future appointments, but simply a means to initiate the process,” he said in the April 15 ruling.

The three plaintiffs’ lawyers appointed were Steve Berman at Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP in Seattle, Elizabeth Cabraser at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP in San Francisco and Marc M. Seltzer at Susman Godfrey LLP in Los Angeles. Cari K. Dawson, at Alston & Bird LLP in Atlanta, is Toyota’s attorney, Selna said.

On Toyota’s recommendation, Selna yesterday appointed Dawson and Lisa Gilford, with Alston & Bird in Los Angeles, as lead lawyers for the company in the economic-loss cases and Vincent Galvin and Joel Smith of Bowman and Brooke as lead attorneys in personal-injury and wrongful-death suits.

Lawyer Candidates

Berman, Cabraser and Seltzer on April 30 submitted a slate of candidates for leadership positions in the MDL that includes their names and 15 other plaintiffs’ lawyers, including W. Mark Lanier of the Lanier Law Firm in Houston and Stanley M. Chesley at Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley in Cincinnati.

Lawyers who weren’t part of the slate also sought appointments from Selna, asking for a broader representation.

“These are certainly very talented lawyers who have been recommended but they all have other major cases on their hands and may have too much on their plates to fully devote time to Toyota,” said attorney Martha K. Wivell at Sheller PC in Philadelphia.

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

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

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