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Federal Judge Rejects Dismissal Of Toyota Lawsuits

Fri, 12/10/2010 - 3:46am
Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge who said he's inclined to let personal injury and wrongful deathlawsuits against Toyota Motor Corp. move forward heard arguments Thursday from Toyota attorneys hoping to dissuade him.

U.S. District Judge James V. Selna issued a preliminary opinion Wednesday denying the automaker's motion to dismiss key causes of action in 51 lawsuits. He heard further arguments Thursday but did not indicate when he would make his final order.

If it's finalized, Selna's tentative order would be a victory for plaintiffs suing Toyota for negligence, design defects, failure to warn and fraudulent concealment.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed since the Japanese automaker starting recalling millions of vehicles because of sudden-acceleration problems in several models and brake defects with the Prius hybrid.

Toyota maintains the plaintiffs have been unable to prove that a design defect — namely its electronic throttle control system — is responsible for vehicles surging unexpectedly. It has blamed driver error, faulty floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals.

Last month, Selna ruled he would not dismiss lawsuits files by car owners who claimed sudden-acceleration defects caused the value of their vehicles to plummet.

The judge is overseeing the economic class action and the personal injury lawsuits in the massive litigation that was consolidated in federal court in Orange County.

Mark Robinson, an attorney for personal injury plaintiffs, said Selna appeared unswayed by the arguments of Toyota attorneys during Thursday's hearing. If so, the "plaintiffs' ship is still afloat," Robinson said.

Messages seeking comment were left Thursday for the automaker's attorneys.

Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore released a statement after Thursday's hearing.

In it, Toyota noted that the tentative ruling assumes the plaintiffs' allegations are true and said it was happy Selna will allow depositions of some plaintiffs so Toyota can learn more about their cases.

Toyota said after last month's ruling that as the case progresses, evidence will show its electronic throttle control system is safe.

It also said so-called "bellwether trials" — a sampling of cases that go to trial first from within the larger litigation — will help Toyota "bring closure to the critical science issues" that underlie key allegations in the cases.

The company has recalled more than 10 million vehicles worldwide over the last year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has received about 3,000 reports of sudden acceleration from Toyota drivers in the past decade, including 93 deaths. The government, however, has confirmed only four deaths from one crash.

In September, Toyota paid an undisclosed amount to settle a lawsuit with the relatives of four people killed last year in a high-speed crash near San Diego when a driver was unable to stop a runaway Lexus. That crash galvanized attention around possible safety flaws in some Toyota models.

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