SAN DIEGO (Reuters) -- Lawyers suing Toyota across the United States over cars alleged to have raced out of control lobbied a special judicial panel to merge the scores of cases and assign them to one or two courthouses for pretrial proceedings.
Consolidating cases is the first major step for the U.S. legal system in confronting a torrent of personal injury claims, consumer-fraud class actions and other civil litigation in federal courts stemming from unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
Toyota Motor Corp. faces a potential liability estimated by some lawyers at more than $10 billion as it struggles to contain an auto safety crisis that has tarnished its once-sterling public image and dented its sales.
Complaints of runaway vehicles and other safety issues have led to the recall of more than 8.5 million Toyota vehicles worldwide, most for repairs of ill-fitting floor mats and sticking gas pedals the automaker blames for surging engines.
Many of the lawsuits suggest the problem is rooted in an as-yet unidentified electronic glitch, which the Japanese automaker has vehemently denied.
Unintended acceleration alone has been linked to more than 50 crash deaths and dozens of injuries in Toyota and its luxury Lexus vehicles under investigation over the past decade.
‘Like cigarettes in jail'
Thursday's hearing in San Diego also presented an early chance for some of the country's top trial lawyers to briefly take center stage in a courtroom packed with their peers as they jockeyed for a key role in legal battles that lie ahead.
A half-hour before the proceedings began, attorneys were still huddled in negotiations in a corner of the room to decide who and how many among them would get two minutes to address the five-judge panel.
"These seconds, these minutes, they're like cigarettes in jail," joked Mark Lanier, a Houston attorney who was one of the lawyers selected to make a pitch. "The California lawyers are fighting with each other for their two minutes."
Kentucky lawyer Stanley Chesley, who argued for transferring all the cases to his home state, site of Toyota's largest manufacturing plant outside Japan, likened the legal scrum to "a cattle call."
With legal action swiftly mounting, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multi-district Litigation was called upon Thursday to combine the federal cases and select one or two judges from around the country to preside over all of them.
No decision is expected for at least two weeks. But Toyota's own attorney and most of the 23 trial lawyers who made presentations urged sending the cases to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles -- the venue closest to the headquarters for Toyota's U.S. sales arm.
A handful argued instead for sending the cases to Louisiana, New Jersey, South Carolina and other states.
The majority, including Toyota's lawyer, also said they preferred assigning all the cases to a single judge, rather than splitting the personal injury claims from cases brought on behalf of consumers for diminished resale value of their cars.
They argued that much of the discovery process and underlying issues would overlap. A few disagreed, arguing the litigation was too complex for one judge to handle.
By one count presented on Thursday, 138 lawsuits against Toyota have been filed in federal court to date, nearly 60 of them in California, including consumer and personal injury cases.
The number of cases is expected to climb further, driving up the potential cost to Toyota in damages and legal fees.
By comparison, drug maker Merck & Co. recently agreed to pay $4.85 billion to settle claims over heart attack deaths blamed for the pain medication Vioxx. About a third of that sum was earmarked for the plaintiff's lawyers, while the defense team earned an estimated $2 billion.