Most N.Y. and Florida Toyota Owners May Be Knocked Out of Federal Lawsuits

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CITY NEWS SERVICE

SANTA ANA — A Santa Ana federal judge overseeing lawsuits regarding sudden-acceleration problems with Toyota vehicles indicated Monday he would knock most plaintiffs with claims in New York and Florida out of the planned class-action litigation.

The lawsuits allege that Toyota owners suffered economic losses because their vehicles lost value when it became clear there were unintended acceleration problems.

U.S. District Judge James Selna’s tentative ruling would eliminate vehicle owners in New York who did not experience unintended acceleration, unless they sold their car. In Florida, only vehicle owners who have experienced a sudden acceleration problem would be allowed in the proposed class-action lawsuit alleging economic losses.

If Selna upholds his tentative ruling, all of California’s plaintiffs would remain in the proposed class-action. The judge will not decide whether a class can be certified until next year.

There are about one million plaintiffs in New York and hundreds of thousands in Florida, and Selna’s tentative ruling would knock out most of them.

Selna so far has agreed with Toyota’s attorneys that the Florida consumer protection law is “crystal clear” that unless the vehicle has a problem, the customer cannot sue.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Steve Berman, however, said the Toyota case is “unique” and would establish new legal precedent. Two appellate courts in Florida have split on the issue at hand in Selna’s courtroom, and there is no “clear-cut” precedent in New York’s appellate courts, he said.

Berman argued that with sudden acceleration problems, there is no warning for the vehicle owners and that no court would rule that customers would have to risk serious injury or death before they can file a claim.

“That would require someone to drive a ticking time bomb and wait for it to explode,” Berman told Selna.

The attorneys suing Torrance-based Toyota Motor Corp. have alleged that the company knew there were problems with the computer software that runs the cars and did not put in manual brake overrides as Toyota’s competitors did.

Toyota has blamed the sudden acceleration incidents on sticky accelerator pedals and poorly fitted floor mats.

Toyota attorney Cari Dawson argued in today’s hearing that it would be “unfair to pay (consumers) for harm that may never occur.”

Berman asked Selna if he upholds his tentative ruling for a chance to appeal it. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would have to certify that appeal and send it to appellate justices in Florida and New York for a ruling.

That could slow down the expected trials planned for next year on the bellwether cases, Selna said.

Also, still to be sorted out by the 9th Circuit judges is the question of who has legal standing to make a claim against Toyota.

Toyota released a statement after the hearing, saying, “We believe the law is clear — plaintiffs from New York and Florida who continue to operate their vehicles and do not allege to have experienced unintended acceleration or incurred an economic loss have no legally recognizable claims against Toyota under these states’ laws.”

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