In a series of interviews, Toyota provided Automotive News with exclusive access to the normally secretive world of the corporate legal defense.
Toyota's defense team is actually two teams. The in-house team, led by Reynolds, is internally known as the State Department. It lays out the overall strategy. If there's a settlement to be had, the in-house team will negotiate it.
Meanwhile, Toyota's outside counsel -- led by Joel Smith and Lisa Gilford -- is the harsh antagonist to plaintiff attorneys, the so-called War Department that aggressively counters plaintiff filings.
Lined up against them are plaintiffs who believe Toyota vehicles have engineering or software faults or that Toyotas are susceptible to outside electrical interference. Somewhere, plaintiff lawyers contend, there is a glitch, and Toyota did nothing to fix it.
Smith, managing partner of Bowman and Brooke in Columbia, S.C., leads a group fighting allegations that unintended acceleration resulted in bodily injury. The hundreds of personal-injury suits have been combined into the Santa Ana, Calif., courtroom of U.S. District Judge James Selna under a so-called multidistrict litigation.
The key personal-injury trial involves the deaths of Paul Van Alfen and passenger Charlene Lloyd, who were killed when Van Alfen's 2008 Toyota Camry crashed on a freeway offramp.
The case is considered a bellwether because it will be viewed as an indicator for future Toyota unintended acceleration injury cases, which Selna will release back to their original jurisdictions after the Van Alfen case is decided. The personal-injury cases will not be combined into a class action, Toyota says.
If a jury finds in favor of Toyota in the Van Alfen case, other personal-injury cases could vanish as plaintiff lawyers see little hope of victory. But if the Van Alfen plaintiffs win, other such cases could gain momentum.
Meanwhile, Gilford's group responds to consumers who claim they have suffered diminished value to their Toyota vehicles. This is the group of filings that has the possibility of becoming a class action.
There is daily communication between Smith's and Gilford's groups and Toyota, but each has a distinct mission. So far, their union has resulted in a string of Toyota triumphs in a California courtroom, whittling away plaintiffs' accusations and motions one by one.
The defense could be costing Toyota well more than $1 million per month in manhours alone. That would take into account the typical cost of 10 external lawyers and support staff working full time on the cases. Toyota and outside counsel declined to comment on the weekly tab they are running.
But that is chump change compared with what plaintiffs are seeking. One plaintiff's attorney told The National Law Journal that damages sought from Toyota could range between $5 billion and $7.3 billion.
Of course, a guilty verdict in a jury trial could have far-reaching ramifications for an automaker whose reputation is grounded in quality. That reputation is the reason Toyota says it is willing to fight the suits to the bitter end.