An attorney for Toyota Motor Co. told a panel of federal judges Thursday that the company prefers to have the dozens of lawsuits filed against it nationwide consolidated into a single lawsuit, preferably heard in Los Angeles.
The suits were filed in the aftermath of reports of sudden unintended acceleration.
During a packed hearing in U.S. District Court in San Diego, California, more than 100 lawyers who have filed lawsuits against the company were literally lined up standing against the walls and filling every available courtroom seat.
Attorney Cari Dawson, representing Toyota, told the panel that "we are open to proceed wherever you deem fit," but she made it clear that Toyota muchÂ prefers a trial in the Central District of California, which has its headquarters in Los Angeles.
Toyota's U.S. corporate headquarters is nearby, in Torrance, California. Dawson is a partner in the Atlanta law firm of Alston and Bird.
Dawson was the only attorney who spoke on behalf of Toyota. Arrayed against her in court were 23 lawyers chosen to speak in the session. They represented various plaintiffs who have filed both personal injury and class action lawsuits against the company.
Among them they sought 19 different venues, including Los Angeles, for the consolidated lawsuit in federal court districts as far ranging as Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana and South Carolina. Each attorney had a strict time limit of two minutes to present arguments in support of one jurisdiction over another.
No matter what jurisdiction finally is chosen, the resulting lawsuit seems certain to be one of the biggest cases of its kind in recent U.S. history. One plaintiff's attorney, Tim Howard of Tallahassee, Florida, who is also a professor of law at Northeastern University, told CNN the suit would rival the litigation against U.S. tobacco companies in the 1990s.
During Thursday's argument before the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, one lawyer said there were now 97 wrongful death lawsuits filed against Toyota in federal courts across the country, and dozens more in state courts.
"There is a massive fight on for hidden documents," said Daniel Becnel, an attorney based near New Orleans, Louisiana. He claimed Toyota had deliberately hidden documents from both attorneys and government regulators. Toyota attorney Dawson told CNN she would have no comment on any assertions beyond what she said in court.
There was no indication from the judicial panel when it would decide where to consolidate the lawsuits. On its Web site, however, the chief judge says no matter what the issue is, it normally only takes two weeks for a decision to be rendered. The panel could choose to consolidate the cases into a single lawsuit but could also decide to parcel the suits out to two or three judges in different jurisdictions.
No matter where the lawsuits finally end up, it will likely mean enormous fees for attorneys involved, but only for a few of them, depending on which federal court ultimately takes the case.