LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (May 14, 2002) — Two low-level employees, acting on their own, destroyed Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. documents that plaintiffs' attorneys claim Cooper management ordered to have burned, according to Cooper executives.
"I can unequivocally state that no Cooper management was involved in the destruction of any of those alleged documents," said Richard Teeple, Cooper vice president and general counsel, during a May 10 conference call for financial analysts and the media.
Furthermore, Mr. Teeple said, the documents may have been destroyed as early as 1997, the year before the accident occurred on which the relevant wrongful death suit is based.
Mr. Teeple and Thomas Dattilo, Cooper chairman, president and CEO, held the conference call while Cooper's stock fell as much as 24 percent that day on the news of the burned documents. After the call, the stock recovered somewhat, finishing 11 percent lower at $22.85 per share.
The federal district court in Little Rock was scheduled to hold a hearing May 16 on whether Cooper should be sanctioned for destroying the documents. The trial date has been moved from May 20 to May 28. Plaintiffs' attorneys have requested the documents in question for the trial.
The case involves an accident that occurred on Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis, Tenn., on May 15, 1998. A Cooper Trendsetter II tire on the Volvo driven by Scharlotte Hervey allegedly lost its tread, causing Ms. Hervey to lose control, cross the median strip and crash head-on into a car driven by Lane Whitaker.
Mr. Whitaker, Ms. Hervey, her husband Edward and her son Jamar were killed; Demario and Rashad, her other two sons, were rendered paraplegic.
Attorneys for the Whitaker and Hervey families claim the tire was defective, but Cooper claims it previously had been punctured.
The same plaintiffs' attorneys petitioned the court for sanctions against Cooper, alleging company management ordered the destruction of two boxes of documents they had requested. They based this claim, according to Reuters and other news sources, on the affidavit of Cathy Jean Barnett, a former employee of Cooper's Tupelo, Miss., plant, where the Trendsetter tire was made. Ms. Barnett claimed her safety supervisor ordered her to get rid of the papers.
During the conference call, Mr. Teeple said Findlay, Ohio-based Cooper had conducted a thorough internal investigation. As far as the company could ascertain, two low-level, non-management Tupelo employees took the boxes of documents, he said, and burned them in a bonfire in one of their yards.
"We don't know why they would do something like that," Mr. Dattilo said, adding that one of the employees "left the company not of her own volition." He did not name the employee.
The other employee—whom Mr. Teeple and Mr. Dattilo also did not name—was vague on when the documents were destroyed, Mr. Dattilo said. It's possible that the burning occurred as early as 1997—the year before the Hervey accident, he added.
"The documents were at least 5 years old, perhaps 7 or 8 years old," said Mr. Teeple, who added there was no clear evidence that they had anything to do with the Hervey case. He noted the tire maker has released more than 21,000 pages of documents to plaintiffs' attorneys in this case and allowed 23 employees to be deposed.
Mr. Dattilo, an outspoken critic in the past on the subject of plaintiffs' attorneys, blamed the Herveys' lawyers for the current controversy.
"As we said, these false accusations came out of a group of plaintiffs' attorneys who looked for ways to get Cooper on the defensive," he said.
Both he and Mr. Teeple acknowledged they were in discussions with the plaintiffs' attorneys toward a possible settlement, but said the discussions were ongoing and it was inappropriate to comment on them.
Bruce Kaster, an Ocala, Fla., plaintiffs' attorney who is among the Herveys' lawyers, was in Little Rock for the trial and could not be reached for comment.