Lawyers jockey for lead slots in Toyota suits

SANTA ANA, Calif. Dozens of attorneys arrived at Orange County Federal Court Thursday morning. They are representing the plaintiffs who filed over 300 lawsuits against /*Toyota*/ after it began recalling about 8 million vehicles because of acceleration problems in several models and brake glitches with the Prius hybrid.

About 70 lawyers pinned their hopes with U.S. District Judge James Selna, who said he would make his decision by Monday. At stake is potentially millions of dollars that a judge can appropriate for attorneys if a settlement or award is reached.

"You cannot have 75 chiefs," said Steven Foley, attorney. "There are various groups that want to be in charge."

Some of the lawsuits are for injury and death, but many others are for economic loss because the value of their vehicles dropped after the recalls.

Some attorneys say there could be at least a $3 billion payout if there is a settlement. With so much money at stake Toyota has hired one of Atlanta's top lawyers, Cari Dawson, as their lead attorney. She will argue the problems were caused by faulty floor mats and sticky accelerators and not Toyota's electronic throttle control system.

But once Judge Selna makes his decision, her team will be facing at least a dozen other attorneys for the plaintiffs.

Selna still must decide whether the lawsuits should be certified as a single class. Toyota has sought to dismiss that motion, saying drivers who haven't had any problems with their vehicles shouldn't be included in the case.

"This is absolutely an NFL All-Star game," said Foley. "These men and women are the best in the business."

Toyota has already paid a record $16.4 million in fines leveled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The company was fined for being slow to tell authorities about the defective gas pedals.

Officials say Toyota could face more fines if other safety violations are uncovered. Fifty-two deaths have been linked to defective accelerators.

Additional hearings are scheduled for May 28 and June 25.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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