By Jessica Dye
(Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp will begin talks to potentially settle hundreds of lawsuits alleging that defects caused some of its vehicles to unexpectedly accelerate, according to a court filing.
Thursday's order from U.S. District Judge James Selna in California federal court put a halt to the lawsuits while lawyers for Toyota and the plaintiffs try to resolve the cases. A similar process will be established for cases in California state court, Toyota said.
Toyota is facing hundreds of lawsuits over acceleration issues, which prompted the Japanese automaker to recall millions of vehicles starting in 2009.
The settlement process, which is open to all plaintiffs, is slated to begin in February, according to the order. It will apply to personal injury, wrongful death and property damage lawsuits arising from the alleged acceleration issues.
Cases that do not settle during the initial process will proceed to formal mediation and, if not resolved, will go to trial, the order said.
A spokeswoman for Toyota, Carly Schaffner, said the company stood behind the safety and quality of its vehicles.
"In our view, the process will bring greater efficiency to the resolution of pending cases and provide a clear path forward for those claims that cannot be resolved outside of trial," she said in an emailed statement.
Elizabeth Cabraser, a lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the order "an encouraging step, and at an appropriate time in the litigation."
Toyota has been hit with more than 200 proposed class action and 500 individual lawsuits alleging personal injuries or property damage caused by the alleged acceleration problems, according to a regulatory filing from the company.
A handful of cases have gone to trial so far. The first federal trial in Brooklyn ended in a win for Toyota in 2011. The second, in California state court, resulted in jurors absolving Toyota of liability for a crash that killed the vehicle's driver.
The latest trial, in Oklahoma, settled in October on confidential terms after a jury returned an initial verdict ordering Toyota to pay $3 million to plaintiffs.
In July, Selna gave final approval to a settlement valued at more than $1.6 billion to resolve economic-loss claims, such as reduced resale value, resulting from the alleged safety defects.
The federal case is In re: Toyota Motor Corp Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, No. 10-2151.
(Reporting by Jessica Dye in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Leslie Gevirtz)