Last Friday, Orange County (California) District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced that a $16 million settlement had been reached with Toyota concerning sudden acceleration defects. This settlement is entirely separate from last December’s widely-publicized $1.3 billion settlement compensating consumers for economic damages in connection with the same defects. Numerous cases also remain pending in federal multidistrict litigation on behalf of those who died or were injured as a result of sudden acceleration.
Using a procedural device whereby a DA may file an action on the public’s behalf, Tony Rackauckas stood in the role usually occupied by class representatives. While just a modest proportion of the total damages Toyota will ultimately pay as a result of the sudden acceleration defect, the Orange County DA’s $16 million settlement is significant in that it is precisely the kind that, if brought by individual consumers instead of a public official, could be blocked by the increasingly broad interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) that expounds on the five-member majority’s anti-class action doctrine in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.
California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) empowers district attorneys and other specified public officials to enforce important public rights or seek broad remedies for stark, unitary wrongs (like the sudden acceleration defect) that are suitable for class treatment. Even the most ardently hostile reading of the FAA does not support forcing a public prosecution into private arbitration, or finding that a prosecutor tacitly waived class or representative procedures. Thus, the device employed by District Attorney Rackauckas may stand as an impregnable bulwark against the continuing attack on consumers and workers seeking rational, efficient adjudication of claims in a single class or representative proceeding.
Of the $16 million paid by Toyota, $4 million is designated to pay costs and fees (including payment to outside counsel hired to prosecute the case), $4 million will go into a fund to help combat economic crime, and the remaining $8 million will be paid to a local gang prevention program. While fighting economic crime and gang activity has no obvious connection to automobile defects, at least one can argue that these programs are beneficial to the public at large.