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First Toyota acceleration trials unlikely for 2 years

autos Updated: Jan 15, 2011 13:13 IST

The first of scores of lawsuits filed against Toyota Motor Corp in US federal courts over complaints of unintended acceleration are unlikely to go to trial for at least two years, the judge overseeing the cases said on Friday.

US District Judge James Selna told lawyers at a status conference that he expected so-called bellwether cases -- those he will choose to serve as guides for how the rest of the litigation might proceed -- to be ready for trial during the first quarter of 2013.

More than 100 separate lawsuits brought in federal courts across the United States against the Japanese automaker were consolidated last April for pretrial proceedings and assigned to Selna in Santa Ana, California. That number has since grown to over 200. Scores more are pending in various state courts around the country.

Selna's courtroom is just a short drive from Toyota's US headquarters in Torrance, California, south of Los Angeles. The product-liability cases consist of consumer fraud actions, as well as wrongful death suits and personal injury claims, stemming from complaints that Toyota cars and trucks sped unexpectedly out of control.

Problems with sudden, unintended acceleration led to the recall of over 6.5 million Toyota vehicles in the United States to correct two problems the automaker has cited as to blame for the issue -- ill-fitting floor mats and sticky gas pedals.

The thrust of the suits is the contention that Toyota ignored evidence of such problems -- as well as an alleged glitch in its electronic throttle systems -- for most of the past decade and failed to install a brake override system that could have prevented accidents.

Toyota has steadfastly denied any such electronic defect.

The lawsuits before Selna account for the bulk of an estimated $10 billion in potential U.S. civil liability Toyota faces as it struggles to rebuild its tarnished reputation for reliability and safety after the wide-ranging recalls.

Plaintiffs lawyers have said they expect claims for economic losses, such as diminished vehicle resale values, will encompass some 40 million US Toyota customers if class-action status is conferred on the consumer-fraud cases as intended.

Federal safety regulators are investigating reports that as many as 89 US crash deaths since 2000 may be linked to unintended acceleration in Toyotas and the company's luxury-line Lexus vehicles.

Toyota agreed in September to pay $10 million to settle legal claims from the family of a California state trooper and three relatives killed when their car, a Lexus ES 350, raced out of control and crashed near San Diego in August 2009.

Investigators said that wreck, which renewed government scrutiny of unintended acceleration and helped spark the Toyota recalls, was likely caused by the gas pedal becoming jammed in the vehicle's floor mat.