State suits against Toyota could pave the way for federal multidistrict litigation

posted on:
April 29, 2010

author:
Amanda Bronstad

Toyota Motor Corp.’s legal problems aren’t limited to the federal multidistrict litigation over unintended acceleration of its vehicles. Scores of lawsuits are working their way through state courts across the nation, and some of those cases could pave the road for the MDL.

The first hearing in the MDL won’t take place until later this month, but some lawyers with cases pending in various state courts already have begun deposing Toyota executives.

Many of the state court suits were filed more than a year ago and, having progressed farther in the court system, might provide some guidance on discovery issues and depositions of Toyota executives that could prove helpful in the MDL or in other cases.

“I would anticipate there are some state court cases that will possibly go to trial well in advance of the MDL,” said Donald Slavik of Habush Habush & Rottier in Milwaukee, a plaintiffs attorney with personal injury suits in state courts across the country. “In fact, if anything, they’re probably leading along the MDL in that a lot of the stuff that comes out of the state court cases will probably be used by the MDL.”

The sharing of resources could prove limited, however. “Sometimes, this MDL stuff can drag out and take a long time,” said R. Graham Esdale Jr., a shareholder at Montgomery, Ala.-based Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles. “If you’ve got people injured and hurt, it’s not fair to have them sit for years and years because this has turned into a big, complex litigation.”

DEPOSING TOYOTA EXECUTIVES

The automaker has recalled more than 8 million vehicles for acceleration problems. On April 19, the company agreed to pay a record $16.4 million fine to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency found that Toyota waited four months to report sudden-acceleration defects in its vehicles.

Toyota has removed many of the state court actions to federal court, where they have been folded into the MDL, which encompasses nearly 200 lawsuits. The MDL is being heard by a federal judge in Santa Ana, Calif.

Lawyers with Toyota suits are watching a case in Michigan’s Genesee County Circuit Court filed on behalf of a woman who died two years ago when her Toyota Camry suddenly accelerated to 80 miles per hour. Plaintiffs attorneys have deposed some Toyota officials, including Christopher Santucci, a former NHTSA official who recently joined Toyota’s regulatory affairs department. They have subpoenaed two more senior executives: James Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., and Yoshimi Inaba, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor North America, Toyota’s highest-ranking executive in the United States.

In court documents, Toyota has sought a protective order to prevent the two from being deposed because they lacked firsthand knowledge of the facts in the case. On March 8, a judge ordered that the depositions should go forward. Toyota has appealed that order to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Lawyers representing Toyota in the cases did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Toyota, Celeste Migliore, said in e-mailed statement: “We are confident that we have acted appropriately with respect to product liability litigation and our discovery practices.”

Depositions in the Michigan case could be useful for lawyers in the MDL, said Eric Snyder of Bailey & Glasser in Charleston, W.Va., co-counsel in the case. “Obviously, we don’t want people reinventing the wheel if they don’t have to,” he said.

One lawyer following the Michigan case is Esdale. He has a pending suit in Oklahoma County, Okla., District Court against Toyota on behalf of a woman whose passenger was killed more than two years ago when the accelerator pedal of her Toyota malfunctioned. He said he anticipated using the depositions of Toyota executives in the Michigan case. “If the questions are good, and the answers fit the facts of sudden acceleration, somebody can take one good deposition of a corporate executive and it can be used in all cases if they’re speaking on behalf of the company,” Esdale said.

Another lawyer following the Michigan case is Slavik, who is scheduling depositions of Toyota executives on behalf of a man whose Toyota suddenly accelerated while at a parking lot along an ocean-side bluff in Pismo Beach, Calif. The car plummeted 70 feet into the Pacific Ocean, killing the man’s wife. “To the extent my work in the state court cases can aid in moving the MDL along as fast as possible, and as efficiently as possible, I’m happy to participate and help on that,” he said.

Lawyers on both sides of the MDL are expected to conduct their own discovery down the line, said Dan Becnel Jr. of the Becnel Law Firm in Reserve, La., who has applied to be co-lead counsel in the MDL. “Not that you plough the same ground, but we would cover some things we think he missed,” he said, referring to Snyder’s deposition of Santucci as an example.

And on the state court side, some lawyers expect little to come out of the MDL that could help their cases, most of which are personal injury or wrongful death cases that rely on individual facts and circumstances. The MDL largely involves class actions filed on behalf of consumers seeking economic damages to compensate for the reduced value of their recalled vehicles.

Vuk Vujasinovic, a partner at Vujasinovic & Beckcom in Houston who filed a suit on behalf of four businessmen who were injured in February while traveling in a recalled Toyota on a business trip in Michigan, said he didn’t want to be limited in what experts he could hire or what discovery he could conduct — as would be the case in an MDL. “If I’m going to sink $1 million or more into a case, I don’t want to be in the backseat,” he said.

This article is part of The National Law Journal’s special report and interactive timeline, “Suing Toyota.”

 

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