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Judge to choose lead lawyers vs. Toyota by Monday

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - Dozen of lawyers spoke glowingly about
their courtroom credentials Thursday as they tried to persuade a
federal judge to give them a lead position battling Toyota Motor
Corp. in the hundreds of lawsuits surrounding its vehicles' sudden
acceleration problems.
About 60 lawyers pinned their hopes with U.S. District Judge
James Selna, who said he would make his decision by Monday. At
stake is potentially millions of dollars that a judge can
appropriate for attorneys if a settlement or award is reached.
More than 320 lawsuits have been filed in federal and state
court against the Japanese automaker after it began recalling about
8 million vehicles because of acceleration problems in several
models and brake glitches with the Prius hybrid.
A judicial panel last month consolidated the federal cases in
Orange County, Calif., and chose Selna to preside over them.
While most of the plaintiffs' attorneys boasted of their
experience handling major product liability cases, some shared with
Selna their ability to speak fluent Japanese, and one attorney said
he was a licensed engineer, which seemed to meet some of the
judge's criteria.
"Technical savvy is a measure of qualification for the
leadership roles," said Selna, who added that preparing for trial
was a "daunting" yet "doable task."
Outside of court, several attorneys who were recommended by a
three-member panel of plaintiffs' lawyers declined comment about
their prospects of being chosen as lead counsel, but some attorneys
during the hearing highlighted how important Selna's selections
will be for the case.
"The leadership you appoint here is going to dominate the
case," said one lawyer, Daniel Becnel of Louisiana.
Some of the hundreds of lawsuits in Selna's hands seek
compensation for injury and death due to sudden acceleration, while
others claim economic loss from owners who say the value of their
Toyota vehicles plummeted after the recalls.
Toyota blamed faulty floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals
for the unintended acceleration. Some plaintiffs also claim that
there is a defect with Toyota's electronic throttle control system,
but Toyota denies that.
Toyota's lead lawyer, Cari Dawson of Atlanta, suggested that
some cases may be more quickly resolved if they are grouped by
those involving vehicles that have been subjected to recall and
those that have not.
"It's a win-win not only for the court but for the parties,"
Dawson said. "If this is all grouped in, there will be some delay
to have them lock-stepped together."
Toyota has paid a record $16.4 million fine to the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration for failing to report its
safety problems to the government in a timely manner. The agency
has linked 52 deaths to Toyota acceleration problems.
Toyota said in a statement that it's confident the case will be
conducted "with integrity and fairness."
In a tentative ruling late Wednesday, Selna set a framework for
the plaintiffs' attorneys in which one panel would have five
lawyers overseeing the wrongful death cases. Seven other would
handle the economic loss lawsuits, and one would deal with
discovery.
However, some lawyers believed the economic loss and wrongful
death committees should have nine attorneys apiece, given the
experience they bring to handle the complexity of the issues in the
case.
Selna said he would reconsider the number of attorneys on the
committees.
Some attorneys anticipate at least a $3 billion payout if Toyota
decides to settle the cases. In comparison, drugmaker Merck & Co.
has paid more than $4.8 billion into a settlement fund for tens of
thousands of claims from people who used its withdrawn painkiller
Vioxx.
Selna still must decide whether the lawsuits should be certified
as a single class. Toyota has sought to dismiss that motion, saying
drivers who haven't had any problems with their vehicles shouldn't
be included in the case.
Additional hearings are scheduled for May 28 and June 25.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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