Note: Following publication of this story, Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore confirmed that a settlement in Van Alfen v. Toyota had been reached. She did not disclose terms of the agreement.
A sudden-acceleration lawsuit against Toyota Motor Corp.—which the plaintiff’s attorney says has settled—was declared a bellwether case because it raises issues similar to hundreds of pending wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits against the automaker.
Except for one thing: sanctions. That distinction may be one reason why Toyota wants to settle the case, according to legal experts following the litigation.
U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana, Calif., concluded in June that Toyota had committed discovery abuses by inspecting the crash vehicle in Van Alfen v. Toyota without notifying the plaintiffs or their attorneys. He said at the time that, as punishment, he would allow the jury to infer that evidence Toyota gathered from the inspection would be detrimental to its defense.
But on January 17, Selna signed a stipulation order vacating those sanctions.
“[T]here will be no reference, either direct or indirect, to the court’s order by any party, counsel or witness in this proceeding or any other proceeding, and the parties agree there will be no mention of the June 11, 2012, order to any participant in the November 19, 2010, inspection at any time in any setting, be it trial, deposition or otherwise,” the order reads.
Said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law: “We can’t know for sure how big of an issue [the January 17 order] is in settling the case, but we can assume it is a part of it.”
As many as 500 cases against the Japanese automaker claiming economic losses or personal injury damages are pending in California, New York and Texas. Last month, Toyota agreed to pay a $1.3 billion settlement to plaintiffs claiming economic losses because of sudden, unexpected acceleration.
In the bellwether case, plaintiffs attorney Mark Robinson, told Bloomberg News and the Orange County Business Journal on January 16 that a settlement had been reached. Another source with direct knowledge of the case but who was not authorized to speak publicly confirmed that Toyota and plaintiffs have agreed on terms, but that the settlement has not received final approval.
A Toyota spokeswoman would not comment, but noted that no settlement documents had been filed with the court.
Regarding Selna’s stipulation order, it is binding on the parties in the Van Alfen case, but it’s unlikely that it would prevent parties in other personal injury case against Toyota from referring to the June sanctions order, despite its language, said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University Law School.
The judge himself, Gillers speculated, may harbor doubts about the order’s applicability to other cases but signed it to expedite a resolution.
The order raises an ethics question about the parties’ power to strike rulings from the court record through agreement—a debate among attorneys and scholars that is not new.”A lot of people think that’s wrong,” Gillers said. “The finding by a judge is a public good. It’s part of the judicial system we support.”
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