CHICAGO (Reuters) - Law firms across the United States are scrambling for a chance at the mother lode: a lawsuit against embattled, but cash-rich Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T).
It has been just over two weeks since the world’s largest automaker announced an recall of 8 million vehicles because of a sticky gas pedal, but already at least 30 class-action lawsuits have been filed against the Japanese automaker.
“This is just the beginning,” said Mark Bunim of New York-based mediation firm Case Closure LLC. “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,” he added.
San Diego law firm Steiner & Associates already has a website up and running (http://www.ustoyotalaw.com) that asks: “Have You or 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!”
On its website, the national plaintiff lawyers trade group the American Association for Justice (http://www.justice.org) has a blurb that reads: “Coming soon... Toyota Sudden Acceleration Litigation Packet.”
In essence, this will be the lawsuit version of “Plug and Play,” where all plaintiff lawyers will need to do is enter names and data into a boilerplate lawsuit, lawyers say.
“This is going to a little cottage industry all of its own,” said Matt Cairns, president-elect of DRI, the Voice of the Defense Bar, the largest U.S. civil defense attorney association.
The likely lawsuits that 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 trial in dozens of cases.
Cases related to injuries and deaths are the most obvious of the cases that will be brought against Toyota.
Up to 19 U.S. crash deaths over the past decade may be linked to accelerator-related problems at Toyota, congressional officials have said. There have also been an unknown number of injuries that could yet result in lawsuits.
“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 Corp (5108.T) unit Firestone and Ford Motor Co (F.N) over 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 the individual plaintiffs only get small amounts of compensation in these cases, plaintiff lawyers can walk away with millions of dollars.
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 Hartford-based product liability partner at McCarter & English. “But that will not prevent people from filing lawsuits against Toyota.”
The cases will range from those alleging that the recall has hurt the resale vehicle of Toyota models or that selling faulty vehicles was in breach of warranty.
Or, in the case of a lawsuit filed in Colorado on February 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 firm’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 may also become 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 DRI’s Cairns.