Two local lawyers are vying for lead roles in suing Toyota Motor Corp. in what could be the largest class action case ever handled in the county.
Mark Robinson of Newport Beach’s Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson Inc. and Wylie Aitken of Santa Ana’s Aitken Aitken Cohn are among those seeking to lead Toyota litigation being consolidated in Santa Ana.
Federal Judge James Selna on Thursday is expected to select a committee of lawyers to lead suits against Toyota’s U.S. arm in Torrance. He’s expected to pick from more than 100 lawyers vying for an expected five lead spots. More than a dozen other lawyers are set to be tapped for supporting roles.
“This is obviously going to be a very major case involving a tremendous amount of legal talent,” said Aitken, founder of Aitken Aitken Cohn.
At stake is a pot of money estimated at $200 million to $500 million in lawyers fees that would be split among the lead and supporting lawyers.
Robinson, senior partner at Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson, has applied to lead personal injury litigation against Toyota. He and other lawyers submitted their bids last month.
Judge Selna has “given criteria in his order and a lot of people have applied,” Robinson said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Aitken has applied to lead litigation related to the economic impact of Toyota’s recalls. Lawsuits there charge that Toyota vehicles lost value for owners and dealers after recalls.
In all, more than 300 lawsuits have been filed against Toyota since it made a series of recalls starting in the fall.
In April, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation—a panel of judges that centralizes related lawsuits—tapped Judge Selna to oversee suits from around the country over unintended acceleration issues in some Toyotas.
The consolidated cases are set to be tried in Santa Ana in what may be one of the largest legal matters to end up at the local courthouse, according to those in the industry.
“It’s definitely up there in the Super Bowl of class action cases,” Aitken said. “It’s quite possibly the largest the county has ever experienced.”
The litigation is expected to have some economic impact as dozens of lawyers and support staff come to the county for meetings, hearings and trials.
The county already has seen some business from the pending litigation.
Robinson and Aitken hosted a roundtable for lawyers last month where about 50 competing attorneys met at The Island
Hotel Newport Beach to discuss Judge Selna’s orders.
“It was a chance for us to listen and go line by line through the judge’s orders,” Robinson said.
The meeting was one of several held throughout the country, including in Nevada and Chicago.
The Toyota litigation could rank among the biggest class action suits the country has seen, behind litigation against tobacco companies and lawsuits over Vioxx, a pain killer by Merck & Co., and Celebrex, a pain killer by Pfizer Inc.
If Toyota were to settle the litigation even for a modest payout, it could cost the automaker $3 billion or more, according to one lawyer familiar with the litigation.
Toyota faces lawsuits in federal and state courts over acceleration issues, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin-istration has linked to at least 52 deaths.
Lawsuits allege Toyota is responsible for injuries and deaths as well as breach of warranty, fraud and economic harm to owners and dealers.
The lead lawyer for Toyota is Cari Dawson of Atlanta-based Alston & Bird LLP, which has an office in Los Angeles.
For now, Judge Selna has assigned three plaintiff’s lawyers as leads in the days leading up to the Thursday’s hearing: Elizabeth Cabraser, a partner with San Francisco-based Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP; Steve Berman, managing partner of Seattle-based Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP; and Marc Seltzer, partner at Los Angeles-based Susman Godfrey LLP.
It’s unclear if they will remain the leads after this week’s hearing.
Early plans outlined by Selna call for two lead lawyers and four supporting attorneys for each—12 in total. That’s expected to grow to five leads and 12 supporting law-yers, according to those familiar with the situation.
After a plaintiff counsel committee is selected, lawyers are expected to start looking at evidence likely to come up in trials, which could begin in mid-summer.
The litigation could take two years at a minimum to play out, according to lawyers.
Selna is experienced in big cases.
He’s overseen complex corporate cases including litigation stemming from a long-running patent infringement fight between San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc. and Irvine-based Broadcom Corp.
Before being nominated as a federal judge by President George W. Bush in 2003, Selna served as a Superior Court judge for five years.
Earlier in Selna’s career, he was a partner at the Newport Beach office of Los Angeles-based O’Melveny & Myers LLP working in complex civil litigation.
He was the lead lawyer on Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation and a lawsuit filed by Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission against the Oakland Raiders football team when it left Los Angeles.
Selna is “someone who knows how to manage large litigation,” said John Cannon, chair of the litigation department and securities litigation practice group at Newport Beach-based Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth.