Among a sea of dull gray suits, Alston & Bird partner Cari Dawson stood out in the California courtroom. Not only because she was a woman in a cheerful skirt or one of the very few minorities, but because Dawson is leading the charge for Toyota Motor Corp. in one of the biggest fights of the decade.

Her argument that day prevailed. The judge in April consolidated more than 200 sudden-acceleration lawsuits in Toyota’s jurisdictional preference, the Central District of California.

Even before then, Dawson looked like a solid bet for the job of leading Toyota’s defense in the multidistrict litigation. “From day one, she has been somebody who you know is going to do great things,” said Dawson’s boss, Alston & Bird managing partner Richard Hays, who has known Dawson, 42, since she joined the firm in 1994.

Plus, she was already on Toyota’s radar. Beginning in 2009, a team of Alston & Bird lawyers, including Dawson, has appeared in five cases for the carmaker. Dawson, who chairs her firm’s class action practice in Atlanta, was named lead defense counsel in the mass case on April 14.

Dawson has spent the past decade defending major companies in class actions, winning numerous summary judgments and defeating multiple class certifications. She is best known for her work defending Seattle-based Safeco Insurance Co. She represents the insurer in a class action in the Southern District of Illinois claiming the company improperly used third-party software to reduce payments for car crash victims’ medical treatments. In 2007, a Safeco case that Dawson had handled in the earlier stages went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On an issue of first impression under a federal law requiring consumer notification related to credit reports, the Court concluded that the company did not willfully violate the law when it failed to tell first-time customers they would be charged unfavorable rates because of their credit reports.

In October 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3d Circuit upheld the dismissal of allegations that State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., another client, improperly obtained a man’s consumer credit report without permission and used the report to target him with a mailer about insurance products.

As for her latest assignment, Robert Carr, executive director of the National Bar Association, said, “It’s reaffirming to know that cases of this sort can and will be awarded to African-American women.” — Tresa Baldas