updated 5/16/2010 1:06:25 PM ET 2010-05-16T17:06:25

A federal judge on Friday drew upon a group of experienced attorneys who have handled some of the largest product liability cases in the U.S. to represent hundreds of consumers suing Toyota over sudden acceleration problems with its vehicles.

U.S. District Judge James Selna appointed four attorneys to be lead counsel for two committees that deal primarily with the biggest issues facing Toyota — wrongful death claims, and claims filed by those who believe their cars have lost value because the Japanese automaker has recalled about 8 million vehicles.

More than 320 lawsuits have been filed in federal and state court against the Japanese automaker after it began its recall because of acceleration problems in several models and brake glitches with the Prius hybrid.

Toyota blamed faulty floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals for the unintended acceleration. Some plaintiffs also claim that there is a defect with Toyota's electronic throttle control system, but Toyota denies that.

Among those who were selected Friday are Steve Berman of Seattle, whose firm last month earned a $200 million settlement against Charles Schwab over claims that investors were misled about the safety of mortgage-backed securities. The deal still must be approved by a judge.

Berman who will head up the economic loss panel, along with Los Angeles-based attorney Marc Seltzer, said he expects a vigorous battle from the Japanese automaker.

"We are up against a well financed and tenacious defendant that doesn't believe it owes consumers anything or has cars with defects," said Berman, who also was involved in the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation. "It's a gargantuan battle."

Selna on Thursday heard from dozens of attorneys who were seeking coveted lead slots. At stake is potentially millions of dollars that Selna could allocate for attorneys if a settlement or award is reached.

Others selected as lead counsel were Newport Beach attorney Mark Robinson, who is best known for getting a $128 million verdict in a case involving exploding fuel tanks on the Ford Pinto. Robinson's firm also is assisting Orange County prosecutors who filed a lawsuit in March against Toyota accusing the automaker of knowingly selling hundreds of thousands of vehicles with acceleration defects.

"The time has now come to focus on the victims, the people who have experienced sudden unintended acceleration," Robinson said. "I look forward to doing my job as co-lead counsel in this regard."

Joining him on the committee overseeing wrongful death claims is Elizabeth Cabraser of San Francisco who has worked on lawsuits against the tobacco industry and the makers of silicone gel breast implants.

Toyota has paid a record $16.4 million fine to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for failing to report its safety problems to the government in a timely manner. The agency has linked 52 deaths to Toyota acceleration problems.

The next step will be arranging a schedule to determine when Toyota will turn over documents requested by the plaintiffs as well as consolidating the lawsuits in hopes that Selna will certified them as a single class.

Toyota has sought to dismiss that motion, saying drivers who haven't had any problems with their vehicles shouldn't be included in the case.

Additional hearings are scheduled for May 28 and June 25.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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