A federal judge in Santa Ana, California has give Toyota Motor Corporation 30 days to surrender the majority of the documents being requested by attorneys representing plaintiffs in a class-action suit. The documents being requested are from prior investigations of consumer complaints alleging sudden acceleration by Toyota vehicles.
Judge James Selna’s decision is considered a defeat for Toyota and follows the company’s first skirmish with attorneys representing hundreds of personal injury and class-action plaintiffs since those cases were consolidated in late May.
Some estimates place Toyota’s potential civil liability as high as $10 billion or more from cases related to sudden acceleration of many of its most popular models including the Prius hybrid.
Complaints of sudden acceleration led Japan’s No. 1 automaker to recall more than 8 million vehicles globally to replace or repair improperly fitting floor mats and defective accelerator mechanisms.
A number of the lawsuits allege the acceleration problems are tied to a yet-to-be-identified electrical defect with the vehicles’ throttle systems. Toyota has consistently and vehemently denied the existence of any such problem.
Two U.S. lawmakers claim their review of Toyota’s internal documents shows the automaker “consistently dismissed the possibility” of electronic defects or malfunctions without ever conducting a thorough investigation into the matter.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers had originally requested the immediate surrender of approximately 125,000 pages of company documents which had previously been submitted to U.S. safety regulators and congressional panels. The majority of those documents have remained confidential with the exception of a handful which was made public during recent congressional hearings into Toyota’s handling of consumer complaints about unintended acceleration.
The attorneys claim the documents would be helpful in their efforts to prove a number of allegations against the automaker ranging from defective products to negligence and outright fraud.
Judge Selna has ordered Toyota to turn over all English-language internal documents not involving the company’s own attorneys within 30 days.
He also ordered the company to surrender about 20,000 pages of Japanese-language internal documents. He has said he will issue a protective order within the next 30 days to ensure that any documents containing trade secrets will be kept confidential.
Lead plaintiff’s attorney Steve Berman told Judge Selna, “We need all that material to form an educated complaint.” Toyota’s attorneys argued that the request of documents is premature and not consistent with pretrial discovery rules and that they would need more time to sort through the documents in order to determine which ones contained privileged information. Judge Selna, however, determined that the 30-day deadline provides sufficient time for Toyota to comply with the order.
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