Lawsuits against Toyota are consolidated

More than 150 lawsuits against Toyota Motor Corp. over alleged sudden-acceleration problems and related injuries have been consolidated before a single federal judge in Santa Ana, about 30 miles from the automaker’s U.S. headquarters in Torrance.

That means that while federal investigations into the causes of the unintended speeding continue in Washington, Southern California now will be the focal point for assessing any personal damages.

In a ruling handed down Friday, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation allowed more than 100 suits seeking class-action status, as well as at least 50 personal injury cases, to be adjudicated in a single federal courtroom. The seven-member panel assigned the case to Judge James V. Selna, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush.

The ruling applies only to federal cases and not lawsuits filed in state courts.

Toyota has been subject to an onslaught of legal filings since it announced its largest-ever recall last September for floor mats that can entrap accelerator pedals and cause unintended acceleration. Since then, Toyota has also recalled vehicles for gas pedals that can stick, as well as some Prius models for brake problems. In total, the Japanese automaker has issued nearly 10 million recall notices for cars and trucks since fall.

Late last month, the federal panel heard testimony from dozens of lawyers on whether to consider the cases separately or consolidate them in a procedure called multidistrict litigation.

Although some plaintiff attorneys argued that the lawsuits should be handled individually, many parties, including Toyota, successfully countered that the legal process would be best served if the cases were argued in one courtroom.

“Centralization will create convenience for the parties and witnesses and will promote the more just and efficient conduct of this litigation,” wrote John G. Heyburn II, chairman of the federal panel. He noted that because Toyota’s U.S. sales headquarters are in Torrance, it would be preferable to assign the cases to the California bench.

The majority of the suits claim economic damage from alleged defects in Toyota and Lexus vehicles, blaming a variety of vehicle components, from floor mats to electronic throttle controls.

Other cases claim injury or death caused in accidents involving Toyota vehicles. Such personal-injury suits are often handled on an individual basis, but the federal panel said that they should be included in the consolidation because “the liability discovery in all the cases will certainly overlap.”

Created by an act of Congress in 1968, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation has considered motions involving more than 200,000 cases. Multidistrict litigation has been used to handle a variety of complex civil cases. Corporations defending themselves from multiple lawsuits often prefer to use the process because it allows witnesses to be deposed or testify a single time, rather than in dozens of instances in various jurisdictions. In addition, it simplifies and lowers the cost of discovery, during which companies are asked to produce internal documents.

Selna, the judge who will oversee the case, was called a “well-regarded and skilled jurist” by the federal panel. He will be charged with determining the course of the proceedings, as well as selecting a group of attorneys to lead litigation for the various plaintiffs.