Toyota Motor Corp. has agreed to pay more than $1 billion to resolve hundreds of lawsuits centered on alleged sudden acceleration defects associated with the recall of more than 10 million vehicles, but the company's legal troubles don't end there.
Plaintiffs' attorneys have filed hundreds of lawsuits alleging that Toyota vehicles caused accidents that resulted in deaths and injuries. Those attorneys say nearly 500 such claims are pending nationwide, although Toyota has pegged that number at closer to 300 in filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. At least three trials are scheduled this year.
"The settlements thus far don't do anything for the people who have been injured or killed in Toyota vehicles," said Todd Walburg, a partner at San Francisco's Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein. He holds a seat on the plaintiffs steering committee in multidistrict litigation against Toyota pending in Santa Ana, Calif. "We expect that there will be multiple trials going forward across the country from this point on."
Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore agreed. "While Toyota may decide from time to time to settle select cases, we will have a number of other opportunities to defend our product at trial in multidistrict litigation and other legal venues," she said via email. "We would emphasize that at no time has anyone put forth any reliable scientific evidence of an alleged electronic defect in our vehicles that could cause unintended acceleration."
Toyota's largest settlement, valued by plaintiffs' attorneys at $1.3 billion, would resolve economic damages claims brought by consumers who assert the company misled them about the safety of its vehicles. Toyota agreed to the deal on December 26. A final-approval hearing on that settlement is scheduled for June 14.
That settlement would resolve a class action in the multidistrict litigation that had been planned for trial this summer before U.S. District Judge James Selna.
On February 14, Toyota agreed to pay $29 million to resolve investigations by attorneys general in 29 states and the U.S. territory of American Samoa into whether it had fully disclosed sudden-acceleration defects to consumers. Toyota has agreed to pay another $25.5 million to settle litigation alleging its executives misled shareholders of its American depositary shares. U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer preliminarily approved that agreement on January 3, and a final-approval hearing is scheduled for March 11.
Toyota abruptly settled two individual cases days before they were scheduled for trial, on undisclosed terms. One case had been scheduled to go to trial on January 2 in Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court. The other, scheduled for trial on February 19 as the first bellwether in the multidistrict litigation, involved a driver who died, along with a passenger, after his car crashed at an exit ramp off a highway in Utah. Two other passengers were injured.
That leaves the bulk of the personal injury and wrongful death cases. They are spread across the nation, with several pending in the multidistrict litigation or in separately coordinated proceedings in state courts in California, Texas and New York.
There's no guarantee that Toyota will settle any of them, said Carl Tobias, professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who specializes in tort and product liability cases.
"The big issue will be, when there's a really strong case, will they settle that case like they did the bellwethers scheduled, which plaintiffs felt were strong or will they try them?" he said. "Usually these MDLs play out in a way, certainly in the pharmaceutical area, that they at some point decide to settle. But often they fight the first 10 or however many cases vigorously."