More than 100 lawyers packed a downtown San Diego federal courtroom on Thursday to hear arguments about which court is best prepared to hear the increasing number of lawsuits filed against Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. over sudden unintended acceleration in millions of its vehicles.
In all, 24 lawyers made brief statements before a panel, arguing for courts and judges in California, Louisiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, Florida, South Carolina, West Virginia and New Jersey.
Cari Dawson, a partner at Alston and Bird who is lead counsel for Toyota, argued for the Central District of California, where one-third of the cases have been filed and where her client is located.
The panel of five judges who regularly hear jurisdictional issues for multidistrict litigation raised few questions about the locations but asked lawyers to address whether the class actions should be separated from the personal injury suits. Most of the lawyers appeared to favor keeping the cases together.
The panel is expected to rule within a few weeks.
Since last fall, more than 10 million Toyota vehicles have been recalled in order to repair problems with accelerator pedals, floor mats and brakes, all of which have been identified as causing sudden and unintended acceleration. Toyota's problems have multiplied, with new reports coming out each week indicating that the Japanese automaker might have known about the acceleration issue years ago.
The vast majority of the lawsuits -- nearly 90 -- have been filed on behalf of a class of consumers who are seeking economic damages because their recalled Toyota vehicles have lost value. A smaller group of personal injury suits have been filed on behalf of individuals who claim to have died or been injured in an accident because their Toyota vehicles suddenly accelerated.
Hagens Berman has filed five class actions during the past two weeks that demand refunds for consumers of recalled Toyota vehicles. Three separate suits, filed on March 19 in the Central District of California, seek refunds for consumers in Colorado, Florida and Maryland. Two other suits were filed on March 15 in federal courts in Washington and Arizona.
Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, said he initially hadn't been planned to get involved in the Toyota litigation. He changed his mind after a former employee of his firm told him that her recalled vehicle, which she bought less than six months ago, was now worth $1,000 less.
"We thought about it and said, 'This seems a bit unfair to the car buyer that they have to absorb the economic ramifications of how to deal with this.' We came up with a new strategy of refunds," he said. "No one is pursuing that, so we thought we'd jump."
The firm expects to file similar suits for consumers in Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon in the coming week, with more to follow. The suits are asking for refunds based on breach of warranty and unjust enrichment.
Meanwhile, Lieff Cabraser now has 20 personal injury claims pending against Toyota, more than any other firm in the nation. Eleven were filed in the past two weeks, most in federal court in Los Angeles.