Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. should have known that documents destroyed by Cooper employees could have been requested as evidence in litigation, a Little Rock federal judge has ruled.
Judge George Howard Jr. ruled May 22 that attorneys for brothers Demario and Rashad Hervey could introduce evidence in their case against Cooper that the tire maker destroyed the documents. He also ordered Cooper to pay the Herveys' court costs.
However, Judge Howard denied plaintiffs' attorneys' motion to preclude the testimony of Cooper's expert witness about the possible causes of failure in the Cooper tires cited in the case.
Bruce Kaster, an Ocala, Fla., attorney representing the Herveys, said the judge's ruling will have a profound impact on the trial, which is set to begin May 28 in the Helena, Ark., federal district court.
``The jury will be told that Cooper deliberately destroyed documents relating to the case, and they will draw their own conclusions as to why,'' Mr. Kaster said.
The last time such evidence was presented in a lawsuit in that jurisdiction, he noted, the plaintiff was awarded $25 million in a case where only one person was killed. In the Hervey case, four people were killed, and the Hervey brothers crippled for life.
In a May 23 press release, Cooper said the documents that were destroyed were irrelevant to the Hervey case, and accused the plaintiffs' attorneys of planting ``bad information'' against the company in the media.
``We will be able to present our case to the jury and will explain that any documents that were discarded under our document retention policy had nothing to do with this unfortunate and tragic accident,'' said Cooper CEO Thomas Dattilo in the release.
In a May 10 conference call for financial analysts and the media, Mr. Dattilo and Richard Teeple, Cooper vice president and general counsel, said two low-level employees, acting on their own accord, destroyed the documents cited by plaintiffs' attorneys.
``I can unequivocally state that no Cooper management was involved in the destruction of any of those alleged documents,'' Mr. Teeple said. That day, Cooper stock fell 11 percent to $22.85 per share on the news of the burned and shredded documents.
The Hervey case involves an accident that occurred on Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis on May 15, 1998.
A Cooper Trendsetter II tire on the Hervey family's 1984 Volvo allegedly lost its tread, causing the vehicle to lose control, cross the median strip and crash head-on into the car driven by Lane Whitaker.
Mr. Whitaker was killed instantly, as were Scharlotte and Edward Hervey and their 15-year-old son Jamar. Younger sons Demario and Rashad Hervey, then 13 and 7, were rendered paraplegic.
Attorneys for the Whitaker and Hervey families claim the tire was defective, whereas Cooper says it was 6 years old with 25,000 miles and a severe puncture through the inner liner.
Attempts to reach a settlement in the case have been unsuccessful, according to Mr. Kaster.