CITY NEWS SERVICE
SANTA ANA — A Santa Ana federal judge made it clear to Toyota’s attorneys Monday that there will be at least three trials in 2013 regarding sudden-acceleration problems with the Torrance-based company’s vehicles, and that he was not in favor of Toyota’s attempts to have a broader class-action trial that would take longer to get before a jury.
U.S. District Judge James Selna has also tentatively ruled against Toyota’s attempts to have the first wrongful-death case dismissed. That lawsuit, which was originally filed in Utah, is meant to be a “bellwether” case that will help guide how the rest of the cases will be handled in class-action complaints.
The Utah case involves a crash that killed 66-year-old Paul Van Alfen, the driver, and 38-year-old passenger Charlene Jones Lloyd as the 2008 Toyota Camry exited Interstate 80 near the Nevada border on Nov. 5, 2010, and suddenly accelerated.
Toyota’s attorneys argued Monday that the case should be dismissed from the federal complaint because it doesn’t reach a threshold of $50,000 in damages. Selna has tentatively sided with plaintiffs’ attorneys, who argue that when factoring in punitive damages, it would easily exceed the damages related to the vehicle’s dollar value.
Selna also sided with attorneys representing the vehicle owners on a planned tutorial for the judge on the technical aspects of the case, said plaintiffs’ attorney Steven W. Berman.
Selna wants the tutorial limited to the electronic throttle-control system, and not on the broader issues involving sudden acceleration problems that have led to crashes, Berman said.
“That’s a big victory for us,” he said, adding Toyota wanted to use the tutorial as a way to tell the judge about National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that the company contends show the causes of sudden acceleration were not due to the vehicles’ electronics.
Toyota has blamed the sudden acceleration incidents on sticky accelerator pedals and poorly fitted floor mats. The plaintiffs allege Toyota knew of problems with its electronic throttle-control systems and did not fix them with brake-override devices as rival companies did.
Selna said that in 2013 he envisioned two wrongful-death bellwether cases going before juries that would take five to six weeks as well as a class-action lawsuit that would deal with economic losses.
Toyota’s plan would have required more time for discovery, pushing back when the trials would begin, Berman said.