Melton Family Charges GM with Fraud; Asks for Sanctions

The parents of Brooke Melton, who died in March 2010 crash caused by a well-known ignition switch defect, returned to a Georgia state court, charging General Motors with fraudulent concealment and perjury in the civil liability case that was settled in September. And, just for good measure, they’ve filed a sanctions motion, via their attorneys Lance Cooper and Jere Beasley for discovery abuse and spoliation of evidence.

The Melton case has unleashed a world of hurt on General Motors – an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Congressional oversight, class action lawsuits and general opprobrium. The company knew for nearly a decade that a loose ignition switch in six models – including the 2005-2007 Cobalt – could move from the “Run” to “Accessory” or “Off” position, turning off the power steering, anti-lock brakes and disabling the airbags, before recalling 1.6 million vehicles in North America. At least 13 deaths have been linked to the defect. The decade-long narrative of what GM knew, when it knew it, how it responded to the problem – or not – included the revelation that one of the obstacles to pinpointing the defect was a design change to the ignition switch that GM originally blamed on the supplier, but no change in the part number – a huge No-No.

In the face of a document showing that the Cobalt's lead design engineer Ray DeGiorgio signed off on the new ignition switch without assigning a new part number, GM has since admitted that he may have lied under oath.

Haeger High-Stakes Poker

So, if you bluff your way out of handing over legitimate discovery after the case settles, do you really owe the plaintiff’s attorney $2.6 million? That’s the story Goodyear may be telling in its appeal of a November sanctions order in the Arizona G-159 tire tragedy otherwise known as Haeger v. Goodyear, now in its eighth year of litigation.

When we last left the case, attorney David L. Kurtz, who represented Leroy and Donna Haeger, sought damages from Goodyear on a separate but parallel track (see The Wages of Fraud). In June he filed a seven-count, 153-page lawsuit, in Arizona State Superior Court, seeking punitive damages via a jury trial for five years of delay and deception in the original product liability action. But the history of Goodyear, the G159, and the Haeger case is so long and sad, we’re going to start from the beginning.

In June 2003, Leroy and Donna Haeger, along with their passengers, Barry and Suzanne Haeger, were seriously injured when the right front G159 tire on their Spartan Gulf Stream Coach RV failed, causing a rollover. The G159 and a Class A motorhome had a lousy marriage; the tire design was prone to overheat on RVs that typically travel at greater than 65- mph speeds for extended periods. Goodyear knew that from its internal testing – but, loathe to miss a market-share – it promoted the match successfully in the 1990s and 2000. Eventually, though, the G159 and RVs produced numerous lawsuits when the tires failed, injuring and killing motorhome occupants. The Haegers were among them, and in 2005 they filed suit. The action was torturous, with more than 1,000 pleadings. Kurtz had asked for all internal testing regarding the G159, and Goodyear responded by employing a tactic that it had used – with varying degrees of success in other cases – turning over as little as possible, and swearing to the court that it had no more.  The Haegers settled in 2010.

In June 2010, Kurtz learned from The Safety Record Blog about a $5.7 million plaintiff’s verdict in another G159 case, Schalmo v Goodyear. At trial, the blog reported, Schalmo’s attorneys presented Goodyear documents including internal heat and speed testing and failure rate data showing that Goodyear knew the G159 was improperly approved for 75 mph continuous highway use. Kurtz began corresponding with Basil Musnuff, formerly of Roetzel & Andress and formerly Goodyear’s national coordinating counsel, to determine if Goodyear had withheld such tests in Haeger. Eventually, Musnuff conceded that Goodyear had, but wasn’t obligated to turn over any more than its NHTSA compliance test results.

The Wages of Fraud

We’re not sure how often federal Chief Judges invite plaintiffs’ attorneys to sue individual defense lawyers for committing fraud upon several courts, but we’re guessing that if it were more often, the temptation to deliberately obfuscate discovery would be less compelling. And we definitely wouldn’t see lawsuits like the one Scottsdale attorney David L. Kurtz filed against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company; its Arizona counsel, Graeme Hancock, and his firm, Fennemore Craig; lawyer Basil Musnuff, and his former Akron law firm, Roetzel & Andress; and Goodyear’s Associate General CounselDeborah Okey.

Kurtz, a products liability attorney for 30 years, who spent the first two-thirds of his career on the defense side says, “This is the worst corporate conduct that I’ve seen. I’ve never seen lawyers act this way. It breaks the system.”

The seven-count, 153-page lawsuit, filed in Arizona State Superior Court, seeks punitive damages via a jury trial for five years of delay and deception in a product liability action involving the G159, a tire Goodyear developed for the urban delivery vehicle market, but sold to the recreational vehicle market, even though it was wholly unsuited for that use. In June 2003, the Haeger family became one of the many victims of this mismatch. Leroy Haeger was at the wheel of his Spartan Gulf Stream Coach on Interstate 25 in New Mexico, when the right front tire failed. The Gulf Stream veered to the right and then rolled over, seriously injuring Leroy and Donna Haeger, along with their passengers, Barry and Suzanne Haeger.