Lawyers in the multidistrict litigation (MDL) against Toyota Motor Corp. have filed their first consolidated complaint, alleging that the Japanese carmaker knowingly hid defects associated with unintended acceleration since 2002 while falsely assuring consumers about the safety of its vehicles.
The complaint, filed on Monday, seeks economic damages for a nationwide class of consumers and businesses, including rental car companies and automobile dealerships. The complaint excludes claims arising from deaths and injuries.
The MDL involves more than 200 lawsuits filed after Toyota recalled more than 8 million vehicles for defects associated with unintended acceleration -- specifically, problems with accelerator pedals and floor mats. Monday's filing alleges that the defects include problems with the electronic throttle control system.
"It all relates to one overriding issue, and that is, they knew they had an unintended acceleration problem, whether or not it comes from the electronic throttle control system or the floor mats or the sticky pedals," said Steve Berman, a partner at Seattle's Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro and one of three lead plaintiffs counsel who signed the complaint. "What unites all these defects is they needed a fail-safe mechanism."
The class involves consumers and businesses that purchased 55 makes and models of Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles dating to 1998.
The complaint cites California consumer protection laws, including the Consumer Legal Remedies Act and the California Unfair Competition Law, as well as breach of contract, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, fraud by concealment and unjust enrichment.
"We think California law is extremely pro-consumer and that all consumers would want to invoke the benefit of California law," Berman said. "Second, it's more manageable to have a class certified if you're applying the law of one state, as opposed to the law of 50 states."
The plaintiffs filed their complaint in two forms: An economic loss master consolidated complaint filed by some 50 named consumers and four businesses located throughout the country; and a first amended consolidated complaint filed by 10 consumers and two businesses in California.
The duel filings were necessary to pursue claims under California law, Berman said.
"Since we wanted the judge to apply California law, we also amended all the cases in his district," Berman said.
In response to the filing, Toyota issued a statement on Tuesday: "Toyota has identified two specific mechanical causes of potential unintended acceleration in some of its vehicles and has moved decisively to address these issues with effective and durable solutions. Toyota rejects claims that plaintiffs suffered economic damages because of the recent recalls. Importantly, to date, plaintiffs have not cited a specific cause that would support their claim of a defect in Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control System, and no credible scientific theory or proof has been advanced to support this allegation. Toyota firmly believes that the system is completely safe and that reliable scientific evidence will demonstrate the safety of our vehicles in the investigations currently underway and, ultimately, to the court."
Also on Monday, a separate master consolidated complaint was filed against Toyota on behalf of millions of foreign consumers who allege violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and of various California consumer laws, conspiracy, unjust enrichment and negligence.
The complaint was filed on behalf of consumers seeking economic damages, and those who have suffered injuries or died in Toyotas. The plaintiffs are six consumers in Mexico, 12 in China, five in Indonesia and one each in Germany, Turkey, Jamaica, Peru, South Africa, Egypt and the Philippines. The complaint excludes U.S. consumers.
Monica R. Kelly, a partner at Ribbeck Law Chartered in Chicago, who filed the complaint, did not return a call for comment. In May, U.S. District Judge James Selna, who is presiding over the MDL, appointed Kelly to serve as a consultant to the liaison and lead counsel committees for Toyota consumers outside the United States.
When asked about the foreign consumer complaint, Berman said: "They were supposed to consult with us. There's an order that says nothing can be filed without the signature of lead counsel. And we did not consent to the filing of the complaint."
Mervin Mateo, a lawyer at Ribbeck Law, said Berman and other members of the lead counsel committees were informed through e-mail correspondence of their plans to file the complaint on behalf of foreign consumers.