Additional plaintiffs’ lawyers in the sudden acceleration cases against Toyota could win access to Toyota’s coveted source code software following a federal judge’s orders on Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana, Calif., granted access to attorneys at seven law firms with most of the cases pending against Toyota Motor Corp. Toyota has said the source code represents a trade secret it must keep out of the hands of its competitors, while plaintiffs’ lawyers insist the code will provide evidence that defects in the electronic throttle control system caused sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
Outside of Toyota’s counsel, access to the source code has been restricted to a handful of lawyers with bellwether trials coming up this year and to members of the steering committee in the multidistrict litigation before Selna.
Selna restricted source code access to one individual from each firm; the plaintiffs’ steering committee had asked that each entire firm have access.
"The sensitivity of the information requires direct personal accountability," Selna said during a hearing on the matter. He said he was not prepared to "open it up to firms as opposed to individuals."
Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore issued a statement following the hearing: "We are pleased that the Court has confirmed that access should only be given to specifically named individuals approved by the Court, not entire firms, given the highly sensitive and proprietary nature of Toyota’s source code."
The seven firms are handling 24 of the 26 bellwether cases proposed by the steering committee and in 114 of the 476 federal and state court cases pending against Toyota, according to the steering committee. They are: San Francisco’s Lieff Cabraser Heiman &Bernstein; Bailey & Glasser in Charleston, W.Va.; Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles in Montgomery, Ala.; New York’s Rheingold, Valet, Rheingold, McCartney & Giuffra; The Lanier Law Firm in Houston; Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables, Fla.; and Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik LLP in New York.
Lieff Cabraser partner Elizabeth Cabraser is co-lead counsel for the personal injury and wrongful death cases in the multidistrict litigation. Eric Snyder, a partner at Bailey & Glasser, and R. Graham Esdale, a shareholder at Beasley Allen, have individual cases scheduled for trial against Toyota in Michigan and Oklahoma this year. Terrence McCartney, a partner at Rheingold, is plaintiffs’ liaison counsel in cases pending before a New York state trial court. And W. Mark Lanier of The Lanier Law Firm is handling the first bellwether trial in the MDL, scheduled for November 4.
Selna said that plaintiffs’ attorneys who want to join the steering committee may apply to do so, pending a hearing on June 26. The committee had asked to add Snyder, McCartney, Lanier and Cale Conley to its membership. Conley, of Conley Griggs Partin in Atlanta, is handling the first bellwether trial in the MDL along with Lanier.
Selna cautioned that too many committee members could "become unwieldy."
"The question is, ‘When does the committee become too big?’" he said.
Selna tentatively granted the steering committee’s motion to set up a common benefit fund that would receive an 8 percent "hold back" of all future judgments and settlements of personal injury and wrongful death cases. The fund would pay fees and discovery costs incurred by committee members.
None of the cases remaining against Toyota involve claims by consumers for economic damages. On December 26, Toyota settled those cases in a deal that plaintiffs’ lawyers estimated to be worth $1.3 billion.
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