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A federal judge in Southern California was chosen Friday to preside over more than 200 lawsuits filed against Toyota in the aftermath of the automaker's sudden acceleration problems, which could potentially mushroom into one of the nation's biggest product liability cases.

A judicial panel consolidated the ever-growing list of cases before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna, 65, a 2003 appointee of former President George W. Bush. Selna's court is in Orange County, Calif., near Los Angeles and close to Toyota's U.S. headquarters.

"This is a big milestone in what will be a very historic case," said Tim Howard, a Northeastern University law professor who leads a group of attorneys in 26 states who are suing Toyota.

Attorneys estimate that if Toyota were to settle the cases for even a modest payout to affected motorists, it could cost the company at least $3 billion and possibly much more. In comparison, drugmaker Merck & Co. has paid more than $4.8 billion into a settlement fund for tens of thousands of claims from people who used its withdrawn painkiller Vioxx.

Selna, one of six federal judges in Orange County, will hear important pretrial motions for all cases, eventually leading to trial, settlement or dismissal of the lawsuits. Selna declined comment through a spokeswoman.

Attorney Mark Robinson Jr., who practices in Orange County and is representing Toyota owners in some of the cases, said Selna has broad experience with more than 28 years as a practicing lawyer before his appointment to the federal bench.


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