California court gets Toyota lawsuits

MIAMI — A panel of federal judges on Friday chose a federal court in Southern California as the location to consolidate dozens of lawsuits filed in the aftermath of Toyota's recall of millions of vehicles over sudden unexpected acceleration problems.

The decision by the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralizes more than 200 lawsuits against Toyota around the country before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna, a 2003 appointee of former President George W. Bush.

Selna, 65, whose court is located near Los Angeles in Orange County, Calif., will hear important pre-trial motions for all cases, eventually leading to trial, settlement or dismissal of the lawsuits.

Toyota favored Los Angeles as the location for consolidation of the lawsuits, near its U.S. headquarters in Torrance, Calif., and a relatively easy trip from Japan. Other attorneys suing Toyota pushed for Kentucky — where Toyota has its largest North American plant in Georgetown and its North American manufacturing headquarters in Erlanger — as well as Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, New York and elsewhere.

More than 130 lawsuits are potential class-action cases filed by Toyota owners who claim their vehicles plummeted in value after the recalls. A key early decision in those cases is whether to establish all similar Toyota owners as a single class, meaning all would be affected by a potential damage award or settlement.

At least 100 other lawsuits seek damages from Toyota for injuries or deaths attributed to sudden acceleration, which the judicial panel determined should also be part of the centralized case.

The lawsuits began appearing last fall as Toyota initiated the first of a series of recalls eventually involving about 8 million vehicles — including about 6 million in the United States — over acceleration problems in several models and brake issues with the popular Prius hybrid.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has linked 52 deaths to acceleration problems, this week imposed a record $16.4 million fine on the Japanese automaker for failing to disclose its safety problems to the government in a timely manner.

That fine could pale in comparison to potential damages in the lawsuits, which could easily exceed $3 billion, according to plaintiff's attorneys. But it will take months or longer for that to play out.