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A judge in Los Angeles ordered dealerships to manually turn over repair records to plaintiffs’ attorneys in the sudden acceleration litigation against Toyota Motor Corp. after an attempt by plaintiffs’ lawyers to view such documents during a visit to a Los Angeles dealership collapsed in confusion. The dealerships are playing a prominent role in the Toyota litigation pending in Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court, where about 100 cases filed in state courts across California have been coordinated before Judge Anthony Mohr. The discovery in the California cases could shape the broader Toyota litigation, particularly as it relates to dealerships, many of which have been named as defendants. More than 200 additional cases are pending in multidistrict litigation against Toyota in federal court in Santa Ana, Calif. Of the estimated 135 dealerships in California that sold or leased Toyota vehicles, five have been selected as test cases for discovery purposes. Access to dealership records hit a roadblock, however, when a team of plaintiffs’ lawyers showed up at the Toyota of Hollywood dealership on May 31 to discover that the repair records were scattered throughout several filing cabinets in the mechanics’ shop. “When my colleagues got there, they realized it was completely unworkable,” said Todd Walburg, a partner at San Francisco’s Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, during a heated exchange in a packed courtroom on July 22. “There are more documents than we can ever imagine.” Mohr had ordered dealerships to provide the repair documents. But after the visit to Toyota of Hollywood, Eric Kizirian, who represents several dealerships, wrote a letter backing off from an earlier agreement regarding the means by which Toyota would provide those documents, Walburg said in court. “We thought we had an agreement, but it appears that the agreement’s been canceled,” said Walburg, who serves on the plaintiffs’ steering committee in the California cases against Toyota. Kizirian, a partner at Los Angeles-based Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, told a different tale: He said that the plaintiff’ lawyers wanted to spend large amounts of time at the dealership reviewing the documents, not just copying them. “It’s a car dealership. It’s not a law office,” he said. He said he changed his mind about the agreement after Toyota advised him that electronic spreadsheets would offer an easier way to provide the documents. A lawyer for Toyota, Ryan McCarthy, an associate in the San Jose, Calif., office of Bowman and Brooke, offered to provide those spreadsheets. Toyota could then use search terms to siphon out repair records unrelated to sudden acceleration — for example, fixes to windshield wipers. But Walburg balked. Toyota’s offer would be “like putting the fox in the hen house,” he said. “The problem is Toyota wants control of what they give us,” he said. “They will just give us selected documents.” Mohr appeared frustrated by Toyota’s reluctance to turn over all the repair records outright. “I’m really at the end of it,” he said in court. “I’m beginning to think there’s an ulterior motive.” Toyota has been fighting the dealer discovery, including depositions scheduled to begin this summer. The federal government ordered Toyota to pay $48.8 million last year in civil fines and recall nearly 10 million vehicles because of faulty accelerator pedals and floor mats that the company blamed for sudden acceleration. Toyota has denied plaintiffs’ claims that an electronics defect may have been to blame. In the end, Mohr ordered that all repair records, including those on paper and scanned into computers, be turned over to plaintiffs’ lawyers. He also allowed plaintiffs’ lawyers to make copies of those records at a site away from the dealerships. Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at [email protected].

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