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Toyota Wins Dismissal of Speed-Up Case Set for First Trial

Toyota Motor Corp. won dismissal of the first sudden acceleration lawsuit set for trial in California in 2013 because a federal judge determined it should have been filed in state court in Utah.

Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, recalled at least 8 million U.S. vehicles starting in 2009, after claims of defects and incidents involving sudden unintended acceleration. The recalls set off hundreds of economic-loss suits and claims of injuries and deaths. The first test case was set for trial in February 2013.

U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana, California, today dismissed that first bellwether case, brought by the families of two people killed in a crash in Utah in 2010, finding a federal warranty claim in the lawsuit failed to meet a required $50,000 threshold for damages. The plaintiffs couldn’t count potential personal injury or punitive damages to reach this requirement, under federal law, Selna said.

“Plaintiffs are unable to reach the jurisdictional threshold of $50,000 in damages,” Selna said. “The case is dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.”

The ruling won’t keep the case from being tried or from remaining in federal court, Mark Robinson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview. The warranty claim, brought under the federal Magnuson Moss Warranty Act, was aimed at the dealer and isn’t essential to the lawsuit against Toyota, Robinson said.

‘Everything Else’

“I am drafting a new complaint right now in which the dealer will not be named as a defendant and everything will be cured and the suit will go forward seeking punitive damages and everything else,” he said.

“We are pleased this jurisdictional issue has been resolved and that the court agrees with Toyota that the proper forum for this case is Utah state court,” Celeste Migliore, a Toyota spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement.

The Utah lawsuit was filed on behalf of Paul Van Alfen, who died when his 2008 Toyota Camry crashed into a wall, and passenger Charlene Lloyd, who died the next day.

Van Alfen’s wife and son were injured in the 2010 crash and are suing as well. The families say the accident happened when the vehicle unexpectedly accelerated as Van Alfen pulled onto an exit ramp on I-80 near Wendover, Utah, and didn’t stop even after he slammed on the brakes.

The families alleged the Camry was defective and the Toyota City, Japan-based carmaker failed to include a brake override system or device to stop inadvertent acceleration.

First Test Case

The Van Alfen case was selected in June as the first test case in the sudden acceleration claims before Selna. A bellwether case is used by the court and lawyers for both sides to test evidence and liability theories before moving on to other trials or limiting future litigation.

Lawsuits were combined before Selna in a multidistrict litigation for evidence-gathering and pretrial rulings.

The Utah lawsuit is Van Alfen v. Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., 2:11-cv-04143, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Santa Ana). 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).

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