Legal attacks against Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. escalated this week following fresh reports of product safety defects afflicting some of the most popular vehicles in the automaker's fleet.
And more suits are coming.
"We're not done yet. We're just building," said Tim Howard, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston who as a plaintiffs attorney specializes in consumer and products liability litigation. "But it's going to be a formidable legal armada that Toyota is going to have to deal with."
Toyota announced on Jan. 26 that it would stop selling eight models because of accelerator pedals that can stick in the depressed position, causing the cars to speed up out of control. The company has recalled 2.3 million vehicles with that problem. Earlier, Toyota recalled another 4.2 million vehicles, blaming a problem with floor mats.
Toyota announced a plan on Monday to fix the accelerators. Since then, Congress has announced plans for hearings into the problems and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has begun considering fines against Toyota for delaying the recalls.
As of Wednesday, there was no word whether litigation lay in store over Toyota's latest headache: reports of brake problems in its Prius hybrid vehicle.
Most of the suits filed in recent days have been class actions on behalf of consumers whose Toyota vehicles have lost economic value because of the recalls. In most cases, the lead plaintiffs have experienced some type of unintended acceleration with their cars but no actual injuries.
Brian Lyons, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., declined to comment on the litigation.
One suit, filed on Friday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, seeks $1 billion in damages on behalf of a nationwide class of consumers. Some 15 law firms have been working as a team in that case and they plan to file another three dozen suits within the next week or two in at least 25 states, said Howard, one of the lawyers on the case. Eventually, he said, the suits will be coordinated as multidistrict litigation.
"There are damages among consumers because no matter what happens here, the cars that people bought will be worth less, whether there's a quick fix or a long fix," Howard said.
"The more severe thing is they could have resolved this problem six months ago or a year ago, and instead required the NHTSA to fly to Japan to get their attention. They were not taking this seriously."
Another member of the team, Stephen A. Sheller of Sheller PC in Philadelphia, said that he plans to file consumer class actions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the coming days.
Since Friday, at least eight additional consumer class actions have been filed in federal courts in Texas, California, Louisiana, South Carolina, Ohio and Canada.
Personal injury claims also mounted. On Monday, a Houston man filed a $200 million action on behalf of his wife, Trina Harris, 34, who died on Dec. 18 after her 2009 Toyota Corolla "suddenly accelerated uncontrollably at a high rate of speed" and crashed into the cement embankment of a toll road, according to a complaint filed in state court in Harris County, Texas.
"Our position is that it's a malpractice case based on a defective product and that Toyota has unconscionably breached its duty to Ms. Harris and provided her an unreasonably dangerous product," said Ken Mingledorff of the Mingledorff Law Firm in Houston, who represents the plaintiff, Michael Harris, and his two children.
Also named as defendants are CTS Corp., which manufactured the electronic components of the gas pedals, and the Toyota dealership that leased the car to Trina Harris. The suit claims wrongful death, product liability and negligence.
Mingledorff said that at least two other wrongful death suits have been filed against Toyota.
On Wednesday, one lawyer at his firm was doing nothing but answering a flood of telephone calls from people who were having problems with their Toyotas, Mingledorff said. He plans to file another suit within a few days on behalf of Trina Harris' mother.
Additional firms are looking into whether to file shareholder class actions as Toyota's share price plummeted.
"If our investigation proves fruitful, or the investigations of other firms prove fruitful, you may see litigation," said Lewis Kahn, founding partner of Kahn Swick & Foti in New Orleans, a plaintiffs firm investigating a potential shareholder suit. "The stock did drop precipitously, and billions of dollars in shareholder value were wiped out as a result of this news."