Monday, May 17, 2010

Lawyers Picked for Toyota Suit

After weeks of wrangling, a federal judge Friday named veterans of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Firestone tire lawsuits to lead the plaintiffs' case against Toyota Motor Corp. in the massive litigation over alleged sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

Steven Berman, of Hagens Berman LLP in Seattle, and Elizabeth Cabraser, of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP in San Francisco, will take the lead roles, according to an order issued by U.S. District Judge James V. Selna.

Mr. Berman represented plaintiffs against Exxon Mobil Corp. in the Alaska oil spill and recently settled a $200 million case against Charles Schwab Corp. alleging the firm deceived investors by misrepresenting risks in certain funds. Ms. Cabraser has wrung settlements out of corporations including Ford Motor Corp. when it had problems with Firestone tires on its vehicles.

The attorneys will be the public face of the hundreds of plaintiffs who have filed more than 70 federal lawsuits against the Japanese auto maker, blaming sudden-acceleration for causing deaths, injuries and a loss of resale value in cars and trucks. They also will take the biggest cut of what's been estimated to reach as much as $500 million in legal fees.

Toyota declined to comment. Atlanta attorney Cari Dawson of Alston+Bird LLP and San Jose lawyer Vincent Galvin of Bowman and Brooke LLP will take the lead defending Toyota.

Ms. Cabraser, who will take on the personal injury claims, said she was "impressed by the care, attention and thoughtfulness the court is giving to the case management process."

Mr. Berman, who will be in charge of the economic claims, praised the legal team the judge had assembled. California attorneys Frank Pitre and Marc Seltzer will serve as his co-counsels. Mark Robinson, who battled Ford when its Pintos were exploding in the 1970s, will serve as Ms. Cabraser's co-counsel. About a dozen other attorneys will have lead roles on various committees.

Dozens of attorneys for weeks had wrestled with one another over whom they would recommend to the judge to take the lead. In the end, the judge somewhat limited the numbers of lawyers serving on various committees for evidence gathering and other matters.

More than 70 plaintiffs' attorneys made their case before the judge in person at a hearing Thursday, offering up their years of experience handling major torts and cooperative spirit as reasons why he should pick them.

Mr. Berman said the next task will be consolidating all the suits into one case, which he estimated would take about 60 days.

By Dionne Searcey,


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