Scores of high-powered U.S. trial lawyers pursuing Toyota in court over the car company’s wide-ranging safety recalls gathered Wednesday to compare notes, strategize and jostle for a prime shot at the legal bounty.
The conference at a San Diego hotel came a day before a special panel of U.S. District Court judges meets nearby to hear arguments on the consolidation of hundreds of federal lawsuits against Toyota into a single case, or a handful, for pretrial proceedings.
“Everybody’s trying to size everybody else up and divide into teams and see who’s going to lead the charge where,” said Mark Lanier, a Houston trial lawyer whose legal team secured over $300 million from Merck & Co. in litigation over heart attack deaths blamed on the painkiller Vioxx.
He is one of several lawyers, chosen from among their peers in various legal camps, who will seek to persuade the Judicial Panel on Multi-district Litigation to assign the Toyota cases to a federal courthouse they consider most advantageous for them.
Attorneys for Toyota Motor Corp. will make their own presentation to the panel. Like some of the plaintiffs lawyers they face, the automaker is expected to seek an assignment of the cases to Los Angeles, near the headquarters for company’s U.S. division.
“If the company is located in a district that could handle the litigation, there’s always a presumption that it’s going to go to that district, and that’s certainly the case here,” said Timothy Blood, a San Diego attorney focusing on consumer fraud cases.
At least 19 federal districts around the country, from California to Florida, and even Puerto Rico, are in contention, though the choice may not be decided for a month.
Far more important than geography, however, is “the need for a smart, creative judge who knows how to do this, and preferably one who has done it before,” said Mitchell Breit, a multi-district litigation expert from New York.
Litigation against Toyota has mounted quickly in the months since it began the biggest recall in its history for repairs to ill-fitting floor mats and sticking gas pedals it blames for instances of sudden, unintended acceleration in its vehicles.
Complaints of runaway vehicles and other safety issues have led to the recall of more than 8.5 million Toyota vehicles worldwide. Unintended acceleration alone has been linked to more than 50 crash deaths in Toyota and Lexus vehicles under investigation over the past decade.
Lawsuits related to deaths and injuries are the most obvious faced by Toyota, most of those in state court.
But more than 80 suits seeking class-action status for consumers for diminished resale value of recalled vehicles also have been filed, accounting for the bulk of cases in federal court and the lion’s share of those likely to be consolidated.
Additional class-action cases have been brought by shareholders accusing Toyota of misleading investors, while automobile insurers and rental car companies also are lining up to join the legal fray. By some estimates, federal court filings of all types already number between 200 and 300.
Organizers of Wednesday’s conference presented seminars on subjects ranging from “black box” data recorders in cars to corporate “damage control” — organizers said they suspected some Toyota attorneys were quietly attending — and the debate between mechanical and electronic theories offered for unintended acceleration.
On the sidelines, some of the roughly 150 attendees engaged in the nuanced maneuvering they hope will position their firms to assume a leading role in the litigation, and with it, a bigger payday.
Lanier, for one, was hardly shy about his ambitions.
“I’ve got 50 personal injury cases (against Toyota), I’ve got five death cases. … Any time I’m invested in a case, I want to have a driving role. I’m not a backseat lawyer.”
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Osterman)