Lawyers suing Toyota Motor Corp. and those for the automaker were told by a federal judge to quickly resolve an evidence dispute so the first cases over unintended sudden acceleration of its vehicles can go to trial in the first three months of 2013.
U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana, California, told the lawyers to resolve their differences over procedures for examining the Toyota’s source code for its electronic throttle control system, which has been blamed by some plaintiffs for instances of unintended acceleration.
“I think it’s important that these underbrush issues get teed up and resolved so the discovery can go forth and we can proceed with these trials,” Selna said today in court, also referring to other issues related to evidence in the lawsuits.
Selna is overseeing hundreds of cases coordinated in multidistrict litigation. The federal lawsuits against Toyota alleging economic loss, wrongful death or personal injury from sudden unintended acceleration were consolidated before him in April.
Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, recalled millions of U.S. vehicles last year and in 2009, most for defects related to unintended acceleration. It paid a record $48.8 million in fines for how some of the recalls were conducted. The Toyota City, Japan-based carmaker said yesterday that it’s recalling another 2.17 million vehicles in the U.S. for carpet and floor-mat flaws that could jam gas pedals.
Access to the source code, which is the programming for the throttle system, has been disputed for several months by the two sides and was described by the judge as one of the key issues to be resolved before trials can begin. The judge said the plaintiffs’ lawyers have a right to review the code to allow their experts to determine whether the system caused the acceleration problems. Toyota lawyers said they want sufficient safeguards to prevent the codes, which are trade secrets, from becoming public and available to their competitors.
“There’s no disagreement between us over what they want to see, the only question is the mechanism of monitoring,” Joel Smith, a lawyer for Toyota, told Selna.
Mark Robinson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the judge that their experts won’t violate confidentiality.
“One thing we don’t want to do is to get blamed for the source code getting out to the public,” Robinson said.
Selna noted the “remarkable degree of cooperation” by the two sides related to the source code.
“Toyota’s source code is the crown jewel of the company’s intellectual property and deserves the highest levels of protection and oversight during discovery,” Celeste Migliore, a Toyota spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement. “We are pleased that the court will establish procedures to protect Toyota’s ability to rigorously guard the confidentiality of this code.”
Toyota will provide plaintiffs an equivalent level of access to the source code given government investigators, Migliore said.
Selna also rejected allegations by plaintiffs’ lawyers that Toyota failed to disclose that a related case was scheduled for trial next month in a federal court in Central Islip, New York. Selna said Toyota did disclose the case in court papers early last year.
“I don’t find any issues of candor to be discussed,” Selna said.
Wylie Aitken, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said the plaintiffs will file a request with the federal panel overseeing the sudden-acceleration cases for the New York lawsuit to be consolidated with the cases in Selna’s court.
Selna said he had no power to control the New York case, which is scheduled for trial on March 28. He said he wouldn’t make any recommendation to the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.
Toyota attorney Lisa Gilford told the judge that the automaker had complied with all notification requirements of notification regarding the New York case.
The coordinated cases are 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).
The New York case is Sitafalwalla v. Toyota Motor Sales, 08-03001, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Central Islip ).