Feb 13 (Reuters) - A Houston trial lawyer who won a multi-million dollar verdict against Merck & Co over its Vioxx painkiller has been tapped to lead the first personal injury case in nationwide litigation against Toyota Motor Corp for the unintended acceleration of its vehicles.
Mark Lanier, 52, was selected last week by Leiff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein and Conley Griggs Partin, the lead plaintiffs firms in the personal injury case, to represent the estate of Ida St. John, who crashed her Camry into a school gymnasium and broke her vertebrae in 2009.
The multidistrict litigation against the Japanese car giant consolidates roughly 155 personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits before a federal judge in California.
St. John's is the first of the personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits expected to go to trial in November and could determine the fate of the other cases before Judge James Selna, who is overseeing the cases.
In December, Toyota agreed to pay roughly $1.1 billion to settle related economic damage claims, but the agreement left the personal injury and wrongful death cases unresolved.
St. John claimed in 2010 that her car abruptly accelerated while she turned into an elementary school driveway in Columbus, Georgia. She said she could not stop the vehicle despite stepping on the brakes.
St. John blamed "defective" Toyota equipment, including a sticky accelerator pedal, for the mishap, and sought damages of at least $75,000 before she died last summer.
Toyota, which chose to try the St. John case first, said in court records that St. John, who was 84 years old at the time of the accident, may have been negligent and that Toyota was in no way liable.
Lanier said in an interview that he plans to show that defective Toyota equipment caused the accident and that if Toyota had installed a brake override system in St. John's vehicle, the crash could have been prevented. Lanier said it is unlikely St. John confused the gas and brake pedals because she had not done so in her 60-year driving history.
"All I'm thinking about is how to beat Toyota into submission," Lanier said.
A Toyota spokesman said a brake override system, which reduces engine power when the brake and accelerator pedals are pressed simultaneously, "is by no means a universal remedy for unintended acceleration, including in cases of pedal misapplication."
Cale Conley, a lawyer with Conley Griggs, said he and Lanier also intend to pursue wrongful death claims against Toyota because St. John's health deteriorated after the crash.
Those claims, without sufficient medical evidence, could be difficult to prove, said Houston trial lawyer Lee Kaplan, who is not involved in the litigation. Kaplan noted that St. John's age would likely be brought into question.
Lanier is known for securing the first guilty verdict against drug company Merck in litigation that claimed the arthritis drug Vioxx caused heart problems.
Lanier's client was a Texas woman who claimed her husband died after taking Vioxx. Lanier won a $253 million jury verdict in Texas District Court, which led to Merck's eventual $4.85 billion settlement with other litigants.