MIAMI — A group of Toyota owners sued the Japanese automaker Monday, demanding a full refund for their recalled cars and seeking a payout that could exceed several billion dollars.
Dozens of Toyota owners in Arizona and Washington claim the vehicles recalled over incidents of sudden acceleration are so unsafe they should be able to return them immediately. Attorney Steve Berman said many of the owners no longer trust their vehicles.
“When we talked with Toyota owners, they all voiced the same desire — to drive the car back to the lot, hand them the keys and pick up a check,” said Berman, who is based in Seattle. “Fortunately, we think the law allows for exactly that solution, and we are asking the courts to make it happen.”
The new lawsuits seek class-action status, which if expanded nationwide, could mean a settlement covering about 6 million recalled Toyotas in the U.S.
Dozens of other potential class-action lawsuits have also been filed against Toyota since it began recalling millions of vehicles to fix floor mats the company says can snag on the accelerator in some models and gas pedals that can get stuck in others. Critics and lawsuits contend the real problem is Toyota’s electronic throttle control, which the company has denied.
Most of the lawsuits contend the recalls have triggered a significant drop in the value of Toyotas — between 6 percent and 15 percent, according to the Kelley Blue Book used-car manual — and are seeking a cash payment for owners to compensate for that loss. Lawyers involved in those cases have estimated Toyota could have to cough up more than $3 billion, assuming a conservative $500-per-owner payment.
The full refund cases take it a step further.
“I don’t know of any parent who would be willing to put their kids in a potentially unsafe car in exchange for a few hundred bucks,” Berman said.
A Toyota spokesman did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment. Generally, the company has refused to comment on the lawsuits.
Matt Cairns, a private attorney and member a group of lawyers that represents corporations and individuals, said he didn’t think the Toyota owners should be entitled to full refunds.
“If they prevail, such plaintiffs will effectively have received free transportation for the period of their ownership of a car that met their every need, something all of us would appreciate when we decide we want a new ride,” said Cairns, who is the president-elect of The Voice of the Defense Bar.
Cairns said Toyota owners who sell their cars may be able to get compensation for a loss in the vehicle’s value following the recall.
The full refund lawsuits come a week before a panel of federal judges will hold a hearing in San Diego on whether to consolidate more than 110 potential Toyota class-action cases before a single judge. The judge would decide whether the cases can be combined into a single “class” of affected Toyota owners and whether the case should proceed to trial.
A group of attorneys filing Toyota cases nationwide — known as the Attorneys Toyota Action Consortium, or ATAC — announced Monday they are adding racketeering claims to many of their lawsuits. The attorney coordinating the effort, Northeastern University law professor Tim Howard, said Toyota has known of accelerator problems since at least 2000 and engaged in a “conspiracy to hide the truth” from consumers.
“It’s become increasingly apparent that Toyota profits were not built on quality products, but on a willful pattern of deception, fraud and racketeering,” Howard said.
If fraud claims are successful under the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations or RICO law, Howard said, it could push total Toyota class-action damages above $10 billion.
Claims of fraud and deception have been made against Toyota in previous lawsuits, including one filed in California in July 2009 by a former Toyota employee. The newer lawsuits are based in part on documents obtained by investigative reporters and congressional committees looking into the company’s recalls.