LOS ANGELES (Bloomberg) -- A federal judge tentatively ruled today that he will reject most of Toyota Motor Corp.'s first major legal challenge to class-action lawsuits filed against the automaker by car owners over sudden acceleration.
Car owners' lawyers provided sufficient evidence to allow their cases to go forward, U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana, Calif., said in a tentative ruling posted on his court's Web site. Selna heard arguments today over Toyota's motion to dismiss class-action, or group, lawsuits claiming economic loss linked to sudden acceleration.
“It is true that plaintiffs do not generally allege the precise dollar value of their losses, but that level of specificity is not required at this pleading stage,” Selna wrote in his 63-page ruling. “It is enough that they allege a tangible loss that can be proved or disproved upon discovery.”
Selna said he would issue a final ruling by the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 25.
The economic-loss lawsuits, combined for pretrial filings and rulings before Selna, claim Toyota drove down the value of vehicles by failing to fix or disclose defects that triggered unintended acceleration.
Federal suits claiming death or injury caused by such episodes are also combined in the Santa Ana court.
Toyota over the last year has recalled more than 15.43 million vehicles around the world for a variety of problems, including 10.2 million for unintended acceleration issues.
In September 2009, the automaker announced a recall of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles because of a defect that may cause floor mats to jam accelerator pedals. The company later recalled vehicles over defects involving the pedals themselves.
‘Produced as promised'
Toyota disputed the claims of economic loss at today's hearing. The vehicles have “produced as promised,” Cari Dawson, a Toyota lawyer, told Selna.
“These cars have not malfunctioned, their owners have not had to pay any money for repairs or retrofit, and they have not suffered any loss,” she said.
Dawson argued that economic loss can't be “speculative” based on losses that the owners may never suffer if they don't sell their cars or if market conditions change and the values of Toyotas don't drop.
Toyota, in its reaction, did not treat the ruling as a defeat. Rather, the automaker sees that it further places the burden of proof on plaintiff attorneys.
“Today's hearing did not address the merits of plaintiffs allegations and did not consider any evidence,” the automaker said in a statement. “The court requires a basic assumption that the plaintiffs' allegations are true, even though they are unproven. The burden is now squarely on plaintiffs' counsel to prove their allegations, and Toyota is confident that no such proof exists.”
Toyota's statement also said that the entirety of the plaintiffs' case rests on the theory of a defect in their vehicles' electronic throttle control system, something that has yet to be proven despite months of investigations.
Mark Rechtin contributed to this report.