JACKSON, Miss. (Aug. 2, 2002)—A Mississippi circuit judge has ordered Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. to turn over a long list of documents to plaintiffs' attorneys in a wrongful death case.
“Cooper Tire has engaged upon a course of conduct exhibiting an attitude that it does not have to provide documents or even the barest information about them unless and until plaintiffs discover from other sources that they exist,” said Judge Bobby DeLaughter in his July 30 ruling. He also fined Cooper $10,000 for every day past July 31 that it failed to produce the documents.
Bruce Kaster, a plaintiffs' attorney handling the wrongful death lawsuit against Cooper in Mississippi as well as a number of other cases involving the tire maker, said withholding documents was “the typical modus operandi for Cooper.”
Findlay, Ohio-based Cooper, however, insisted the documents were either irrelevant or protected by orders in other cases. It accused trial lawyers of “attempting to put companies back on their heels and making it nearly impossible to comply with rulings/requests and try the cases on their merits.”
Furthermore, a Cooper spokeswoman told Tire Business the company “follows the rules” when it comes to discovery and complying with requests for documents.
“In the Mississippi case, Cooper voluntarily updated its responses to plaintiffs' written discovery five times,” she said. “Cooper rigorously followed the Mississippi court's rules of procedure while the plaintiffs' attorneys did not.”
The current case, before the Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Hinds County, Miss., involves a lawsuit brought by Dorothy Pace and Johnnie McGill emanating from an accident in Yalobusha County, Miss., on April 11, 1999. A 1984 Ford Bronco II equipped with Cooper tires turned over that day because of an alleged tread separation. Mr. McGill, a passenger in the vehicle, was severely injured, and Mrs. Pace's husband Donald, the driver, was killed.
In the Pace-McGill case, Judge DeLaughter noted that plaintiffs' attorneys requested the documents from Cooper on Feb. 9, 2001. Cooper responded that March 13, “objecting to virtually every request and failing to provide any substantive information about its tires or the processes used in designing, manufacturing or evaluating them—even concerning its tires within the same 'green tire' specifications of the particular tire in this case,” he wrote in his decision.
The judge disagreed with Cooper's claims that the discovery requests were belated, and said the company's suggestion that plaintiffs' attorneys could find documents in the public record “did not come until plaintiffs' counsel called Cooper's hand.”
Judge DeLaughter also said Cooper had withheld information on warranty claims and adjustment data from plaintiffs' attorneys, then told the court it had provided it. “(This) is further evidence of just how far Cooper is willing to go to rape discovery requirements,” he said.
Besides the order to produce the documents and the fine for failing to do so, Judge DeLaughter also:
* Ordered that Cooper be fined another $10,000 per day for every day after Aug. 2 that the company failed to provide plaintiffs' counsel with inspection and copying of documents;
* Ordered that Cooper be sanctioned for “systemic failure to make proper discovery and/or abuses of the discovery process;”
* Ordered that Cooper pay all attorneys' fees and court costs;
* Ordered that Cooper's attorneys be sanctioned for “making materially false representations of fact” and that the company should show cause as to why it shouldn't also be sanctioned; and
* Ordered that further sanctions would be considered if Cooper didn't turn over all the documents by Aug. 7.
This case represented one more landmark in the increasingly bitter relations between Cooper and plaintiffs' attorneys. From his office in Ocala, Fla., Mr. Kaster said: “I've been involved directly or indirectly in at least 50 cases involving Cooper, and this is the typical conduct they've engaged in. This is not the exception.”
In its prepared statement, Cooper reiterated its position that the requested documents were either protected or irrelevant and that plaintiffs' attorneys were creating a smoke screen.
“Our argument is with the timing, the magnitude of documents the plaintiffs are requesting and their lack of relevance to this particular case,” the company said. “These unreasonable discovery requests have become part of the trial lawyer's strategy.
“Court rules make it clear that a document request should seek only those materials that are relevant or that might reasonably lead to the discovery of admissible evidence in a specific trial,” the company added. “As a result, we are reviewing our options and will respond appropriately in court.”