published Thursday, March 25th, 2010

US panel to consider locale of Toyota lawsuits

CURT ANDERSON

AP Legal Affairs Writer

SAN DIEGO — A special panel of U.S. federal judges is being asked Thursday to consolidate before a single court dozens of proposed class-action lawsuits filed by Toyota owners who say the value of their vehicles has plummeted after millions were recalled for safety fixes.

The decision, expected in about two weeks by the seven-member U.S. Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, will set the stage for eventual trial or settlement of the roughly 100 cases filed nationwide, which could potentially cost Toyota billions of dollars in damages.

"Somebody is going to get this thing. It is going to be a ton of work," said attorney David R. Cohen of Cleveland, who has been appointed frequently as a "special master" to assist judges in similar cases.

The judge who is chosen will make several key decisions, including whether all Toyota owners affected by the recalls should be treated as a single class that could be paid for the vehicles' lost value. Toyota also is expected to ask for dismissal of the case.

Before that, however, the panel must decide where to send the lawsuits. Toyota favors Los Angeles federal court, near its U.S. headquarters in Torrance, but 18 other jurisdictions have been suggested including Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, New Jersey, and even Puerto Rico.

The lawsuits have been popping up in court dockets nationwide following Toyota's recalls involving around 8 million vehicles, including about 6 million in the U.S. There are also separate lawsuits filed by crash victims and family members, as well as by investors who blame Toyota stock losses on the recalls.

Toyota, which declined comment before Thursday's hearing, has blamed the sudden acceleration problems on floor mats and accelerators that sometimes stick. Most of the owner lawsuits, however, trace the incidents to faulty electronic throttle controls that they say Toyota has been aware of and covered up for nearly a decade.

Toyota has repeatedly denied its electronics are the cause.

Similar lawsuits filed in different locations are frequently centralized in one place. Currently, about 92,000 lawsuits — 48,000 of them involving cancer-causing asbestos — have been consolidated by the Multidistrict Litigation panel before 240 federal judges, according to the panel's Web site.

___

Associated Press writer Greg Risling contributed to this story.

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March 25, 2010 at 10:08 a.m.
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