[UPDATED with Case Dismissed:] Federal Judge in Santa Ana Sets Trial For First of Hundreds of Lawsuits Against Toyota

A Santa Ana-based federal judge has dismissed one of the bellwether cases in the myriad of freak-acceleration lawsuits lodged against Toyota. 

In June, U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna picked Van Alfen v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. out of hundreds of other cases, to be one of the bellwether cases, meaning its outcome would influence the decisions in other cases. 

But last week, Selna dismissed the case on a technicality. The Van Alfen case was filed by the families of two people who died after a Toyota Camry unexpectedly sped up and crashed into a wall in Utah. Although it happened out-of-state, all of the unexcted-acceleration cases went to Selna since Toyota's U.S. headquarters are in his district.

The location factor, however, ended up working in Toyota's favor, as Selna dismissed the case Thursday noting a "lack of jurisdiction."

In his decision, Selna references the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act  and "Congress's clear intent to leave personal injury claims to state law." 

An action can only be brought in federal court if the amount at stake in the lawsuit is over $25,000 -- or, in this case $50,000 since there were two plaintiffs. In the Van Alfen case, the dollar amount didn't reach the threshold and Selna decided the matter should be handled by Utah state court. 

And, Toyota seems to agree. "We are pleased this jurisdictional issue has been resolved and that the Court agrees with Toyota that the proper forum for this case is Utah state court," Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore said in a statement.  

UPDATE, SEPT. 9, 2:10 P.M: Earlier this week, Toyota and the lawyers representing the people suing Toyota in several unexpected-acceleration cases, presented court papers showing their disagreements on specifics of the trial. 

The two parties disagree on how many of the then Toyota-drivers the car company should be allowed to interview, according to a Reuters story.

The plaintiffs' lawyers think Toyota should be limited to interviewing 50 people max, but Toyota says they want to talk to as many as 250 people. In the Reuters story, Toyota lawyers are quoted saying, "Plaintiffs' proposal unfairly prevents Toyota from creating a full record to oppose class certification and thus infringes on Toyota's due process rights." 

The back-and-forth between the parties precedes U.S. District Judge James Selna's hearing on the case Monday.

ORIGINAL POST, JUNE 20, 5:11 P.M.: A Santa Ana-based federal judge has picked the bellwether case in the slew of freak-acceleration lawsuits lodged against Toyota. The trial, which will undoubtedly influence the litigation of the other cases, is set to start on Feb. 19, 2013, according to a timetable housed on the court's website.

U.S. District Judge James Selna chose to start with the Van Alfen v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. case. The case is rooted in a fatal 2010 crash in Utah, in which a Toyota Camry unexpectedly accelerated and rammed into a wall. Selna is managing the jumbo case because Toyota's U.S. headquarters are in Torrance, which is in his federal district.

 In a tentative order, Selna writes: 

The conduct of a trial in the first quarter of 2013 will markedly advance these proceedings. The Court believes that selection of a personal injury/wrongful death case (is) most the likely type of case to meet that goal. The Court designates Plaintiff's selection, Van Alfen v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. Case No. 2:11-cv-04143 JVS (FMOx) (C.D. Cal.), as the first trial. 

Although Toyota surely isn't loving this process, they say they don't mind Selna's decision. 

"We are pleased that the initial bellwether will address Plaintiffs' central allegation of an unnamed, unproven defect in Toyota vehicles, as every claim in the (multi-district litigation) rests upon this pivotal technical issue," said Carly Schaffner, a Toyota spokeswoman, in an emailed response.

Another recent development in the case bodes well for Toyota.

That could potentially save Toyota lots of cash, as Inside Line reports that Toyota told them "that approximately 70 percent of the economic-loss claims in the litigation were originally filed outside of California." 

The Weekly has covered the Toyotas-gone-whack issue since before the Van Alfen crash and a lot of the other complaints went national. An April 22, 2009 cover story by Paul Knight tells the stories of Prii gone awry (in February Toyota announced the official plural for Prius).


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