By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge has chosen a Utah crash that killed two people as the first bellwether trial in nationwide litigation over whether Toyota Motor Corp made defective vehicles that sped up unexpectedly.
District Judge James Selna chose the case two days after ruling that Toyota owners outside California who sought to recover losses in their vehicles' value could not pursue their claims under that state's consumer-friendly laws.
Toyota, the world's largest automaker, has recalled several million vehicles for problems since late 2009, including stuck gas pedals and floor mat flaws, that owners have linked to unintended acceleration.
The recalls led to hundreds of state and federal lawsuits, including claims over alleged injuries and deaths and "economic loss" claims tied to lost resale value. Selna, who sits in Santa Ana, California, handles most of the federal cases.
In a tentative order made public on Friday, Selna set a February 19, 2013 trial for the bellwether case, concerning claims raised by the families of Paul Van Alfen and Charlene Lloyd.
According to court papers, Van Alfen was killed when the 2008 Toyota Camry he was driving slammed into a wall opposite an exit ramp off Interstate 80 near Wendover, Utah.
The November 5, 2010 crash came after the Camry unexpectedly accelerated and did not stop even after Van Alfen applied the brakes, the papers show.
Lloyd, a passenger, died from her injuries the next day, while Van Alfen's wife Shirlene and son Cameron were injured in the crash, the papers show. They also sued Toyota.
Bellwether cases are important because their outcomes serve as a benchmark for future cases. Selna said holding a trial in early 2013 will "markedly advance" the Toyota litigation and that a wrongful death case is most likely to meet that goal.
"We are pleased that the initial bellwether will address plaintiffs' central allegation of an unnamed, unproven defect in Toyota vehicles, as every claim in the multi-district litigation rests upon this pivotal technical issue," Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore said in a statement.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
LEGAL SETBACK FOR SOME TOYOTA OWNERS
Toyota has disputed owners' claims their vehicles lost value because it failed to disclose and fix problems with electronic throttle control systems.
The Japanese automaker has said roughly 70 percent of U.S. economic loss claims were originally filed in states other than California.
In a ruling on Wednesday, Selna said applying California law in these cases would violate principles set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court on which law to apply.
"Application of California law to a nationwide class, at least in some instances, would drastically expand the scope of relief available to plaintiffs (to the detriment of Toyota)," Selna wrote.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs in that case did not immediately return call a seeking comment.
On April 1, Toyota won the first U.S. jury verdict over sudden acceleration since the recalls began.
A Long Island, New York federal jury said Toyota was not responsible for causing a doctor's 2005 Scion to accelerate unexpectedly and smash into a tree.
The cases are: In re: Toyota Motor Corp Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 10-ml-02151; and Van Alfen et al v. Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc et al in the same court, No. 11-04143.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Additional reporting by Dan Levine in San Francisco; editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Andre Grenon)