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As Toyota makes repairs, its legal troubles have just begun

Legal troubles for Toyota continue to mushroom, with dozens of potential class-action lawsuits filed around the country.

University of Kentucky law professor Mary Davis said the Toyota litigation, in the wake of the Japanese automaker's recall of more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, has the potential to be the biggest consumer-fraud case ever.

"This is unlike anything I've ever seen," said Davis, who was involved in multistate asbestos litigation as a trial attorney.

In a suit filed Tuesday in Northern Kentucky, several Toyota owners in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Florida accused the company of knowingly concealing defective, dangerous accelerator systems on its vehicles for years to protect sales so it could become the world's largest automaker.

The Kentucky suit might be the first to allege racketeering, mail fraud and wire fraud, based on Toyota's representation that its cars were safe when they were not.

The suit names Toyota's giant assembly plant in Georgetown, Ky., the automaker's largest in North America, as a defendant because it builds engines and powertrain components that are allegedly subject to acceleration problems.

Other defendants listed in the lawsuit are Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America Inc., which is headquartered in Erlanger, in Northern Kentucky; Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.; and the Toyota Motor Credit Corp.

A spokesperson for Toyota said Wednesday that the company does not comment on pending litigation.

A hearing on consolidating the national cases — at least 40 more have been filed on the acceleration problems — is scheduled for March 25 in U.S. District Court in San Diego, according to a consortium of more than 22 law firms in 16 states involved in various suits.

The group, the Attorneys Toyota Action Consortium, alleges that Toyota owners have seen the value of their vehicles plummet as a result of avoidable problems that the company has known about for years.

On Friday, Toyota asked a California court to dismiss cases originally filed in November. The automaker said the plaintiffs have suffered no damages from the defects.

Robert A. Steinberg, an attorney for the Kentucky plaintiffs, said Wednesday that he thinks Kentucky stands a good chance of getting the multidistrict litigation because of the Erlanger headquarters and the Georgetown plant.

Steinberg said about 120 cases have been filed nationwide against Toyota, many in state courts.

"There will be more by the end of the day," he said.

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