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The bumpy ride toward the first trial against Toyota over sudden-acceleration claims got bumpier when a Los Angeles judge told lead plaintiffs’ lawyers to tear up the complaints in their proposed bellwether cases and suggested that a wrongful death case might have a higher priority. Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr, overseeing about 100 cases filed against Toyota Motor Corp. in state courts in California, has insisted that the first trial in the litigation occur in 2012 — ahead of any other Toyota case in the country. But during a Dec. 13 hearing, he granted demurrers against three proposed bellwether cases filed by individual consumers who purchased Toyota vehicles that allegedly accelerated out of control. The three cases at issue do not involve injuries or deaths but rather assert economic damages under breach of warranty and additional claims, plus violations of California consumer laws. Toyota has criticized the cases as “lemon law” disputes and has argued that a personal injury or wrongful death would be a more appropriate bellwether. In granting the demurrers, Mohr said he had problems with the three consumer cases. “The biggest problem is these cases, these complaints, seem to be a class action without being a class action,” Mohr said. “If these are individuals suing for economic loss, then they are individuals suing for economic loss on behalf of themselves. They are not suing on behalf of a class. To talk about all these other cars, all these other problems, is going to unduly complicate and prolong these cases.” Mohr later suggested another candidate for an initial trial — a case brought on behalf of a man whose wife died after her 2006 Camry accelerated to up to 100 miles per hour, forcing her to steer the vehicle onto a median and into a telephone pole. The complaint asserts damages for the wrongful death of Noriko Uno, who died in the accident on Aug. 28, 2009, in Upland, Calif. Garo Mardirossian of Mardirossian & Associates in Los Angeles said his client, Peter Uno, might need to go to trial as soon as possible because both his kidneys have failed. Mohr scheduled a Jan. 26 hearing on that argument. The demurrer ruling was a blow to plaintiffs’ attorneys, who have pushed for the cases to be among the first to go to trial. During the hearing, attorney Scot Wilson, counsel at Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson in Newport Beach, Calif., argued that the plaintiffs were attempting to demonstrate a pattern of conduct by Toyota. But Mohr insisted the complaints needed to focus on the individual plaintiffs and the vehicles they purchased. He gave the attorneys 30 days to amend their complaints. “I need to see a good complaint before I say, ‘Yes, this is a bellwether case,’ ” he said. Toyota immediately praised the ruling. In an e-mailed statement, spokeswoman Celeste Migliore wrote: “We’re pleased the Court agreed that plaintiffs’ counsel failed to plead sufficient facts to support the substantive elements of their key claims.” The California cases are separate from the federal multidistrict litigation against Toyota pending in Santa Ana, Calif. Toyota recalled approximately 10 million vehicles last year for defects associated with sudden acceleration, such as faulty accelerator pedals and floor mats. Plaintiff attorneys have maintained that the problems go beyond those mechanical issues to include the failure of a brake override and flawed electronic throttle controls. On the bright side for the plaintiff’s team, Mohr rejected many of Toyota’s arguments to dismiss the claims in the complaints at issue. He ruled that the allegations involving Toyota’s conduct as it pertains to other makes and models could be introduced as evidence just before trial. And he noted that information about Toyota’s overall conduct would be part of a separate action brought by Orange County, Calif., District Attorney Tony Rackauckas on behalf of California consumers. Mohr has accepted the district attorney’s case as a bellwether that will “run in the background” as a bench trial while individual lawsuits go before juries. The next status hearing in the California cases was scheduled for Jan. 6. In the Uno case, Mardirossian could prove a formidable foe. The past president of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles, he frequently wins verdicts in personal injury, wrongful death and police brutality cases. He recently joined the legal team for Kelly Thomas, the mentally ill transient who was beaten by six police officers in Fullerton, Calif., earlier this year. Thomas died five days following the beating. Toyota also has brought in some new faces. Attending the hearing were Mark Berry, executive managing partner and firm vice chairman of Bowman and Brooke, who works in Los Angeles; and Sean Beatty of Beatty & Myers in Long Beach, Calif., who handles lemon law cases for Toyota. In the past, attorneys Lisa Gilford, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Alston & Bird, and Vincent Galvin, managing partner of the San Jose, Calif., office of Bowman and Brooke, took the lead during the California hearings. Toyota also recently added Thomas Nolan, co-chairman of the West Coast litigation practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Nolan, a partner in Los Angeles, represents Bratz doll manufacturer MGA Entertainment Inc. in its copyright case against Mattel Inc. and served as its lead counsel during the first trial in that dispute, during which a federal jury awarded Mattel $100 million in damages in 2008. This year, he represented Wells Fargo & Co. in a lending discrimination case before Mohr in which a Los Angeles jury awarded a class of homeowners $3.53 million. Contact Amanda Bronstad at [email protected].

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