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California judge gives tentative OK to Toyota class-action suit

From Stan Wilson, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Judge consolidated hundreds of lawsuits from throughout the country
  • Suit is the first major civil action in the U.S. against Toyota since large recall
  • In the suit, Toyota owners say vehicles lost value as a result of recall, federal investigations
  • Toyota: Plaintiffs are alleging mechanical problems, and all haven't proved design defects

Santa Ana, California (CNN) -- A federal judge in California tentatively ruled Friday that dozens of Toyota vehicle owners who filed a class-action lawsuit against the automaker over alleged mechanical defects can proceed with their case.

U.S. District court Judge James Selna, who consolidated hundreds of lawsuits from throughout the country, issued his 63-page ruling after several motions to dismiss the claims. The plaintiffs are seeking economic damages.

The lawsuit is the first major civil action in the U.S. against Toyota since the automaker recalled millions of vehicles stemming from "sudden unexpected acceleration" and brake defects.

In the lawsuit, Toyota car owners say their vehicles lost significant value as a result of the recall as well as federal investigations stemming from thousands of consumer complaints, which led a $16.3 million civil penalty issued by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

"Toyota's argument is basically if you have a car that has a significantly statistical chance of running away greater than other cars and has no brake override, then you have to wait until it crashes before you sue," said attorney Steve Berman, who represents the plaintiffs. "I call it the time bomb theory, in which you have to wait for the bomb to go off, and the court rejected that."

In a statement, Toyota has said that plaintiffs in the suit are simply alleging mechanical problems and have not been able to prove design defects in each of their cases.

"At this early stage, this analysis by the Court requires a basic assumption that the plaintiffs' allegations are true, even though they are unproven."

"Toyota is confident that the evidence will confirm what millions of Toyota drivers prove every day: that they can depend upon their vehicles to provide safe, reliable transportation."

Judge Selna is overseeing most of the lawsuits against Toyota, including dozens of separate civil lawsuits filed by motorists who were injured in crashes and survivors of those killed in Toyota-related crashes. Motions for those cases will begin on December 9.