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Attorney of the Year Finalist — Peter Prieto

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The Takata airbag litigation preoccupied Prieto in 2017, consuming up to 80 percent of his time as vehicle owners landed settlements valued at $1.2 billion.

By Catherine Wilson

Peter Prieto. Photo

Peter Prieto. Photo: J. Albert Diaz
PETER PRIETO
Podhurst Orseck

Peter Prieto didn’t raise his hand when U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno was looking for someone to lead the plaintiffs’ side in the Takata air bag multidistrict litigation, but Prieto accepted when the assignment was offered.

Prieto was appointed in March 2015, and the plaintiffs filed their first motion to approve four settlements in May 2017, “so 2017 was the year that all of these cases, through either litigation or settlement, really came to fruition.”

Economic loss settlements were approved last October for Toyota, BMW, Mazda and Subaru. Settlement motions followed for Honda and Nissan, and they were approved in February. The combined valued of the agreements is about $1.2 billion.

“The Takata MDL is really one of the top two or three large MDLs in the country. Rarely do MDLs have eight defendants,” and another four were added recently, Prieto said. The new additions were General Motors, Fiat-Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.

“It’s really hard to manage that kind of litigation,” he said. “I tell people the practice of law is simple. Dealing with lawyers is the difficult thing. It’s the reality.”

Prieto was responsible for coordinating the work of seven leadership firms, and about 20 other firms were on board for document review, depositions and other expertise.

“You’re creating a virtual law firm by just putting together these law firms,” he said. “For the most part, we knew them, but it’s still a challenge to work and coordinate with everyone and make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction.”

The first settlements provided the overall structure. Prieto explained, “We wanted to make sure whatever position we took with one defendant didn’t hurt us with another.”

But the litigation involving each defendant was “completely different,” he said. Ford, for one, hasn’t settled.

Takata was the initial defendant and filed for bankruptcy protection, requiring the plaintiffs to hire bankruptcy counsel. The primary objective for the air bag plaintiffs was to avoid the standard bankruptcy litigation stay. A stay was denied in Delaware in the only exception allowed by the bankruptcy judge.

The Takata MDL has required a lot of travel, “not every week, but there were spurts there where we were traveling to New York every week.”

The assignment “came out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting it,” Prieto said. “It’s been a great experience. It’s been stressful but interesting and instructive.”

Vehicles produced by 19 automakers with Takata air bags are covered by the largest recall in U.S. history, estimated to affect more than 37 million vehicles.

Prieto had other things to do than serve as chair lead counsel in the Takata MDL, but it has dominated his time.

“I actually worked on other stuff, but 70 to 80 percent of my time was primarily devoted to Takata,” he said.

Prieto’s law firm, Podhurst Orseck, is a Miami litigation boutique noted for playing outsized roles in major national class actions and MDLs.

The other things on Prieto’s plate include serving as the only Florida lawyer on the plaintiffs executive committee in the GM ignition switch litigation, chair of the experts committee in the Blue Cross Blue Shield MDL in Alabama, a member of the plaintiffs’ executive committee in the checking account overdraft MDL and lead counsel in Miami-Dade County’s opioid case against the pharmaceutical industry.

And the Takata litigation is about to gear up again soon on the four defendants added in March.

Prieto previously served as the executive partner of Holland & Knight’s Miami office and led its litigation department. He also was a Miami federal prosecutor and served in the independent counsel’s office in Washington working on the criminal investigation of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.