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Texas Judge Names Counsel To Probe Toyota Lawsuit

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A Texas judge has named a special counsel to investigate whether Toyota Motor Corp. intentionally hid evidence during a lawsuit filed by a woman paralyzed in a car crash, court documents showed.

Johnson County District Judge John E. Neill appointed J. Gregory Coontz on Thursday after reviewing information from former Toyota lawyer Dimitrios Biller, who has said the automaker held back safety data in rollover cases and has released thousands of pages of company documents.

Neill said in a letter to attorneys that "questions exist" over whether Toyota "properly complied with the court's discovery order" in the case of Pennie Green, whose 1997 Toyota Camry rolled over as she swerved on a highway in Johnson County in 2005. She was rendered a quadriplegic when the roof collapsed on her and broke her spine.

Green filed the lawsuit in a Cleburne, Texas, court and settled for $1.5 million in 2007. But in 2009, she filed a motion to hold Toyota in contempt, saying that if she had been aware of hidden evidence she would have held out for a bigger settlement or gone to trial.

"We are pleased the court is taking a step further to get to the truth, whether or not Toyota lied or destroyed evidence in Ms. Green's case," Green's attorney Jeff Embry said Friday. "Ms. Green all along has wanted Toyota to be held accountable if they engaged in misconduct in her case. She wants to see Toyota held accountable if they did anything improper, so it's one step closer to that."

Toyota emphasized that no wrongdoing has been found in the case, and it expected none would be.

"We are confident that we have acted appropriately with respect to product liability litigation and our discovery practices, including in the Green case," the company said in a statement. "The recent order by the Texas court is not a finding that Toyota violated any discovery obligation."

The appointment was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Biller, who worked for the Japanese automaker for four years and now runs LTD Consulting in Pacific Palisades, California, told The Associated Press on Friday he believes he will be called to testify before the special counsel. He said he was served with a subpoena and turned over 40 to 50 documents to the Texas judge in early October.

Earlier this month, an arbitrator in Orange, California, awarded Toyota $2.6 million in damages from Biller, who made confidential documents public to bolster his allegations that the automaker had withheld evidence in crash lawsuits.

The arbitrator also issued a permanent injunction instructing Biller to return the confidential documents obtained during his employment.

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Associated Press writers Greg Risling in Los Angeles and Matt Curry in Dallas contributed to this report.