Houston lawyer staking claim in Toyota litigation

Standing
at the bottom of the sunny Houston courthouse steps last week, lawyer Mark
Lanier called a press conference largely to mark his legal turf and try for a
stake in what’s expected to be multibillion-dollar litigation against Toyota.

In
the weeks since the Japanese car maker’s January recall of millions of cars to
fix a mechanical problem with the accelerators, lawyers in Texas and around the
country have smelled Toyota’s corporate blood in the water and mustered.

There
have, in the past few weeks, been dozens of class action lawsuits filed on
behalf of Toyota owners for lost car value and mental anguish. Dozens of other
lawsuits have been filed by those who blame injury or death on acceleration
problems, with three death cases filed in the Houston area alone. And lawsuits
of behalf of shareholders and dealership are expected next.

“Lawyers
are jockeying for a place in this. This is a mass tort. Toyota is in for
billions of dollars and for a number of years,” Lanier said.

A
federal multi-district litigation panel already lists 80 class action lawsuits
filed just in federal courts and has set a March 25 hearing to start the
process to pick a federal judge who will oversee Toyota lawsuits all over the
country. That judge will appoint lawyers to a steering committee, usually based
on the cases they have, their experience and the resources they can contribute.

“Those
who stake a claim now will more likely get the leadership positions with the
plaintiffs’ steering committees that will be set up to handle consolidated
discovery,” Lanier said. “Leading the charge best insures the charge going the
direction one thinks best.”

He
said he also wanted to “serve notice on Toyota and the financial community that
this is a real action with the people and dollars to truly pursue it.”

Lanier,
a nationally known plaintiffs lawyer, stood on the courthouse steps with lawyer
Tammy Tran, who supplied 300 possible cases from the local Vietnamese community.

Though
they had boxes of files and Lanier’s firm is one of those with priority
advertising on Google, Lanier and Tran have filed only one lawsuit against
Toyota so far over unspecified injuries by an undergraduate student whose Camry
hit a parked car.

But
Lanier, who frequently is described as a top litigator by national media, has
promised to put 30 lawyers on Toyota cases and to put $15 million toward
developing the cases. He’s previously been involved in asbestos cases, business
litigation and won the first jury case against Merck, the drug manufacturer for
Vioxx, with an initial verdict of $253 million.

With
offices in Houston, New York and Los Angeles, Lanier is known for his ability
to charm juries, some attributing it to the fact he is also a preacher. Known
for an annual kid-friendly Christmas party with talent like Miley Cyrus and Bon
Jovi, just last month Lanier won a $56 million jury verdict in San Antonio
against Caterpillar on behalf of an injured construction worker.

David
Owen, a law professor who writes law books on these kinds of lawsuits, thinks
the coming flood of cases won’t take Toyota down.

“My
prediction at this point is that it will cost Toyota $1 billion to $5 billion,
including legal fees, and that’s nothing to them,” said Owen who thinks the
consumer class action complaints will get tossed out of court and the death and
injury cases will be what costs the company money.

Owen,
a professor at the University of South Carolina law school, said he’s seen
counts connecting Toyota accelerator problems to about 50 deaths, but some are
in non-recalled cars and none have yet been proven in court.

And
he notes, there’s also some question of whether this isn’t about just Toyotas,
but other cars with similar accelerator and brake systems.

“This
could be like the Ford Pinto cases,” he said. In those cases in the late 1970s
and early 1980s the Pintos actually exploded in rear-end collisions less often
than other small cars, but Pinto explosions had the most publicity.

He
said big and small plaintiffs firms are trying to get on the bandwagon now
“because they hate to let a good thing get away,” even if it later proves to be
less lucrative business than expected.

Robert
Hilliard, a Corpus Christi lawyer who filed the first class action on behalf of
consumers in Texas and is in a consortium of about two dozen firm around the
country handling these suits, said the lawyers involved are “the usual
suspects,” meaning the firms that handled other big product liability cases
like those over Vioxx, breast implants and Firestone tire blowouts.

Hilliard
expects Toyota to be hit by a variety of lawsuits. He represents a Minneapolis
family supporting the release of a man jailed four years ago after being
convicted of killing their father with an accelerating Camry.

“We
support letting him go. The insurance company that paid my clients after the
death is now joining us in a suit against Toyota,” Hilliard said.

Hilliard,
Lanier and other lawyers involved in the cases say the problem with Toyotas
appears to be in the electrical system and Toyota recalling floor mats and then
making mechanical corrections on some models won’t solve it. The lawyers allege
Toyota didn’t build in a brake override redundancy like that in other cars and
the company knows that’s the problem.

A
phone call to Toyota’s public relations office was not returned for this story,
though corporate representatives have generally not commented on pending
litigation. Toyota has said the problem has been floor mats and a mechanical
part and has denied allegations it’s the electrical system that is to blame for
uncontrolled acceleration.

Ken
Mingledorff, who filed the first wrongful death accelerator case in Houston for
a client who lost his wife when she sped through a stop sign and smashed into a
concrete wall, said he’s become suddenly popular with other lawyers.

“It’s
amazing how many friends I suddenly have in other lawyers wanting to join me in
one way or another,” said Mingledorff. “It’s kind of exciting to be in the
forefront of major litigation against an international company like this.”

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