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Toyota Motor Corp.’s move to dismiss the first bellwether case in the litigation over sudden acceleration claims failed when a federal judge tentatively denied the motion on Sept. 12. The case involves Paul Van Alfen, a Utah resident whose 2008 Camry lurched suddenly while on an exit ramp off Interstate 80 in northwestern Utah. The complaint alleged that he slammed on the brakes, but the car kept accelerating and crashed into a wall opposite the ramp. Van Alfen died at the scene, his wife and son were injured, and a fourth passenger died in the hospital the next day. The survivors and family members of the victims filed suit on May 13 against Toyota, blaming the accident on sudden acceleration defects. They seek unspecified damages for medical expenses, lost earnings and funeral costs, plus punitive damages. On June 10, U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana, Calif., tentatively picked the case as the first to go to trial in the multidistrict litigation against Toyota over alleged sudden acceleration defects. Toyota’s attorney, Vince Galvin, managing partner of the San Jose, Calif., office of Bowman and Brooke, had argued that the Van Alfen case should not have been brought in federal court. Specifically, Galvin wrote, the only federal jurisdiction issue in the case, which asserts personal injuries and breach of contract under Utah laws, is the U.S. Magnuson-Moss Consumer Warranty Act, under which claims are required to amount to more than $50,000. In Toyota’s motion, filed on Aug. 8, Galvin wrote that the Van Alfen’s vehicle, which sold brand new for $21,000, had 45,730 miles on it. Attorney Mark Robinson insisted in court documents that the case involved more than $50,000 because the plaintiffs are asserting additional punitive damages under Utah’s breach of warranty laws. Robinson, senior partner of Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson in Newport Beach, Calif., wrote that Utah law permitts punitive damages cases in tort actions when the acts of the defendant were “willful and malicious or intentionally fraudulent.” In his opposition paper filed on Aug. 22, Robinson wrote that Toyota’s motion represented a “radical departure” from its position of several months ago, when defense attorney Joel Smith, managing partner of the Columbia, S.C., office of Bowman and Brooke, supported the idea of making the Van Alfen case the first bellwether trial. “Since Toyota’s motion is incongruous with its relatively recent position in this Court, as well as its public statements to the media, Toyota’s sudden change of heart would seem to be nothing more than a tactical maneuver,” Robinson wrote. Such allegations are “false and irrelevant,” Galvin replied in an Aug. 29 reply document. In his tentative order, Selna disagreed with Toyota’s arguments. “Because the Court cannot say with legal certainty that Plaintiffs cannot meet the jurisdictional amount of damages under the MMWA, in light of the value of the subject vehicle and the potential for punitive damages, Plaintiff have carried their burden to demonstrate that the Court has jurisdiction,” Selna wrote in his order. A hearing on the order and other issues in the MDL was scheduled for the afternoon of Sept. 12. Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at [email protected].

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