A plague upon thee, Toyota

Over 250 lawyers met yesterday at the "Toyota Litigation Symposium" at the Westin hotel in San Diego, California, in preparation for the a major federal hearing today on the "sudden acceleration" problems in certain Toyota vehicles.

Sessions reportedly included topics such as “Liability issues: The Mechanical vs. Electronic Debate", "Corporate Damage Control", and "From Ford to Toyota: Lessons Learned".

Eight Toyota models have been recalled for the issue, affecting 2.3 million vehicles. "There is a possibility that certain accelerator pedal mechanisms may, in rare instances, mechanically stick in a partially depressed position or return slowly to the idle position," stated the company in January.

An earlier recall due to pedal entrapment due to floor mats and a separate recall for anti-lock brake software on the Prius have led to over 100 lawsuits being filed against Toyota. There are over 9 million Toyota vehicles that have been recalled since November,  but an increasingly large number of lawsuits have been filed recently, many of which may be frivolous or suspicious.

This is illustrated by the inconsistencies in the "Runaway Prius" incident. Abnormal brake wear and refusal to shift the transmission into neutral despite being told repeatedly to do so have led authorities to investigate the driver. Jim Sykes has had a long history of financial trouble, and financial gain from a lawsuit may have been the motivating factor in the incident.

Many of the cases may be due to pedal confusion, especially amongst elderly drivers. Cases of pedal confusion have been increasing over the past several years due to an aging population.

There are also separate lawsuits filed by crash victims and family members, as well as by investors who blame Toyota stock losses on the recalls.

The lawsuits filed so far span a wide spectrum. Some are filed by crash victims and family members seeking damages, while others are from car owners seeking to recoup a perceived lost value in their vehicles. A few lawsuits are by investors who blame losses from trading Toyota's stock on the recalls.

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation will hold its first hearing today on consolidating the cases. The seven-member Panel will decide which cases can be consolidated into class action lawsuits, and there may be several depending on their decision.

“The Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) process has established itself as an important tool for addressing complex disputes. And, in becoming familiar with the MDL device, lawyers must adjust their philosophies and notions of how cases are litigated and how they get concluded. Of course, complex litigation always provides an opportunity for creative thinking and strategic coordination. The Toyota litigation will be no different,” said Richard J. Arsenault, an organizer of the symposium.

The Judicial Panel will also decide where to send the lawsuits after they are consolidated. Nineteen jurisdictions have been suggested, included Puerto Rico.

Damages from the lawsuits could potentially amount to billions of dollars, in addition to the hundreds of millions spent on the recalls and fixing vehicles sold.

"It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm okay with that." -- Microsoft COO Kevin Turner

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