Since Toyota announced a recall of 8 million vehicles because of a sticky gas pedal on Jan. 21, at least 30 lawsuits seeking class-action status have been filed against the world's largest automaker.
"This is just the beginning," said Mark Bunim of Case Closure, a mediation company in New York. "There's going to be one of these cases in every town. . . . And why not? When you've got a lot of victims and a lot of money, it's only to be expected."
Law firm Steiner & Associates already has a Web site up and running that asks: "Have You or a Loved One Been Injured or Killed in an Accident Due to a Defective Gas Pedal or Floor Mat? You may be entitled to substantial compensation!"
The Web site of the American Association of Justice, a national trade group for plaintiff lawyers, features a blurb promising visitors that the association is assembling a "Toyota litigation packet" that soon will be available.
In essence, this will be the lawsuit version of "plug and play," where all a plaintiff's lawyer will need to do is enter a name and other data into a boilerplate lawsuit, lawyers say.
"This is going to be a little cottage industry all of its own," said Matt Cairns, president-elect of DRI, the nation's largest association of civil defense attorneys.
The likely lawsuits Toyota will face include everything from death and injury cases to those alleging the automaker concealed the truth.
The legal mess could take years to resolve, and will ultimately come down to a business decision on Toyota's part on whether it is better to settle or to fight it out in dozens of trials.
"As this issue gets more attention, Toyota owners who had accidents in the past few years are going to wonder if those accidents were caused by unintended acceleration," said Frank Pitre, a plaintiff lawyer at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy who in the past decade successfully fought cases against Bridgestone's Firestone unit and Ford involving rollover incidents.
Class-action lawsuits are a predominantly U.S. phenomenon, involving a large group of people bringing a collective claim to court. Critics argue that while individual plaintiffs get only small sums of money in compensation, plaintiff lawyers can walk away with millions.
The possibilities for these kinds of cases are vast even if the risk of death and injury is low.
"There is a very minuscule percentage of vehicles actually experiencing unintended acceleration," said Jeffrey Thomen, a product liability partner at McCarter & English in Hartford, Conn. "But that will not prevent people from filing lawsuits against Toyota."
Or, in the case of a lawsuit filed in Colorado on Feb. 2 by Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardine, alleging that Toyota knowingly hid its acceleration problem from the public.
"We believe Toyota knew about the problem but misled people and concealed the truth," said Mike Burg, the company's founder. "There are many people out there who would never have bought Toyotas if they'd known about the unintended acceleration issue."
Auto insurers are also likely to pursue cases against Toyota over accidents that may prove to have been caused by faulty vehicles.
Experts predict a flurry of lawsuits over the hybrid Prius model, which this week became part of the recall.
"At some point, Toyota may have to decide to settle out of court," Pitre said. "It's far more expensive to go to court and would prolong the pain for Toyota and many families."
In the meantime, the Japanese automaker will need to beef up its outside counsel, lawyers say.
"If I were Toyota, if I hadn't already hired the best automotive defect defense lawyers in America, I'd be tracking them down right now," said Cairns of DRI.
This article was reported by Nick Carey for Reuters.
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