Sometimes it takes a threat of jail time for corporate lawyers to abide by the law.
Attorneys for General Motors, threatened with imprisonment for contempt, last month turned over internal documents that are likely to undermine the giant automaker's defense in product liability cases around the country.
In Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Broward County Judge Arthur Franza ordered GM to turn over the documents in a lawsuit brought by the parents of 13-year old Shane McGee. Shane was killed in 1991 when the fuel tank in the 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass station wagon he was riding in burst into flames after being struck in the rear by another vehicle.
GM fought to keep the documents secret, but at a showdown hearing on February 5, Judge Franza threatened "very severe sanctions" if GM did not obey his order.
Pursuant to a subpoena, GM's in-house attorney Glenn Jackson appeared before Judge Franza on that day, but did not bring with him the documents that Franza had ordered him to bring to court. Jackson, GM's case manager for the McGee lawsuit, told the Judge that GM would not give him the documents to bring to trial.
"Do I have to arrest you, and book you, and put you on bond and release you?" Judge Franza asked Jackson. "I am warning you all and your client to produce these documents by Monday. Let me tell you, if you don't, there is going to be some very severe sanctions, and I mean very severe. I don't think General Motors is big enough to thumb its nose at the Court. I don't think they are big enough to obstruct justice or to conceal evidence."
On February 9, GM finally produced the documents that it had sought for years to keep secret. Judge Franza conducted an evidentiary review, and ordered a number of them admitted into evidence.
The legal skirmishing centers around a dispute between two former General Motors engineers, Edward Ivey and Ronald Elwell.
On June 29, 1973, Ivey, then an engineer at Oldsmobile, prepared a two-page report and calculated that fatalities related to fuel-fed fires were costing GM $2.40 per automobile.
Ivey multiplied 500 fatalities times an estimated $200,000 per fatality ($100 million) and divided that by 41 million automobiles. "This cost will be with us until a way of preventing all crash related fuel-fed fires is developed," Ivey concluded.
The Ivey report, as it is known, has been used by plaintiffs attorneys against GM in fuel-fed fire cases for almost 10 years now. But there has been an ongoing dispute between Ivey and Elwell about why Ivey prepared the report and what he meant by it.
Elwell, a retired GM engineer and whistleblower, testified in the McGee case that in 1981, the Ivey report appeared on his desk at General Motors in a plain brown envelope. Elwell said that the Ivey report had on it a cover sheet which showed it was distributed to GM management.
Elwell testified that after reading the report, he met Ivey in an Oldsmobile garage and Ivey told him he prepared the report at the request of GM management "because General Motors wanted to know how much they could spend on fuel systems."
Ivey says he had never met with Elwell and that he did not know why he prepared the report or who asked him to prepare it. "I don't remember anyone asking me to write it and I don't believe anyone did," Ivey said.
In May 1997, McGee's attorney sought from GM any documents relating to the Ivey report. GM said that no such documents existed.
But after the February 5 showdown, GM produced the documents, one of which is a legal summary of an interview conducted with Ivey on November 3, 1981.
In that document, GM attorneys conclude that "Ivey is not an individual whom we would ever, in any conceivable situation, want to be identified" to plaintiffs attorneys in fuel-fed fire cases "and the documents he generated are undoubtedly some of the potentially most harmful and most damaging were they ever to be produced."
This document also appears to contradict Ivey's claim that he doesn't know why he prepared the report. In the document prepared by GM attorneys, Ivey said he wrote the report "for Oldsmobile management" and engineers to "assist them in 'trying to figure out how much Olds could spend on fuel systems.'"
GM doesn't want anyone to think it was a cheapskate, unwilling to spend more than $2.40 per car to fix the problem. In a statement last week, GM said that "a dollar value cannot be placed on human life" and that "any suggestion that GM does not care about occupant and product safety is reprehensible and couldn't be further from the truth."
Whatever you say, big boy.
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