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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A judge has ordered the pretrial merger of at least 40 California state court lawsuits filed against Toyota over cars that have raced out of control, including a case stemming from the fatal crash that sparked the automaker's recall crisis.
A 10-page order signed on Wednesday by Los Angeles County Superior Judge Carl West also recommends that the state-based litigation, consisting of consumer-fraud class actions and personal injury claims, be assigned to a single judge in neighboring Orange County.
The order lists 40 separate cases filed so far in California courts against the Japanese automaker seeking damages for sudden, unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles, said Aldwin Lim, a court clerk.
A final decision on assigning the cases rests with the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Ronald George, and he is expected to render his decision in two to three weeks.
Complaints of runaway vehicles and other safety issues have led to the recall of more than 8.5 million Toyota vehicles worldwide, most for repairs of ill-fitting floor mats and sticking gas pedals the automaker blames for surging engines.
At a hearing before West on Tuesday, a lawyer for Toyota Motor Corp urged the judge to order all the California court cases to be sent to Orange County, the same jurisdiction where over 100 separate Toyota cases brought in U.S. district courts around the country have been assigned to a single federal judge.
State and federal court cases will remain separate, lawyers have said.
The idea behind consolidating numerous similar lawsuits is to streamline pretrial proceedings and avoid duplication of discovery motions and depositions that various cases would have in common.
Garo Mardirossian, one of several plaintiff's lawyers who took part in Tuesday's hearing, said he was aware of eight personal injury and wrongful death claims filed in California state courts so far.
The rest are lawsuits seeking compensation for economic losses resulting from the recalls, including class-action cases on behalf of Toyota car owners for diminished resale value of their vehicles.
One of the wrongful death claims was filed in March by relatives of a California state trooper, Mark Saylor, and three family members who were killed when the Toyota-manufactured Lexus ES 350 sedan he was driving raced out of control and crashed near San Diego last August.
The fiery wreck, and a recording of a frantic cell-phone call placed by Saylor's brother-in-law moments before impact, drew intense media attention and renewed government scrutiny that led to recalls for unintended acceleration.
Mardirossian represents the family of a woman killed in a similar crash of her Toyota Camry the same day, also near San Diego. That lawsuit, like many others, asserts the crash was triggered by an as-yet unidentified defect in Toyota's electronic throttle system, which Toyota has ruled out as a cause of unintended acceleration in its vehicles.
Joe D'Agostino, a senior assistant district attorney for Orange County, which brought its own consumer fraud case against Toyota, said the personal injury and economic loss cases would likely proceed along separate tracks under the supervision of the judge who ultimately is assigned to them.
Reporting by Steve Gorman; editing by Carol Bishopric