In a strongly worded decision, a Mississippi federal judge granted summary judgment to two plaintiffs' attorneys who were sued by Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. for allegedly interfering with an agreement with a former employee.
Cooper claimed in its lawsuit that Bruce R. Kaster and John Booth Farese conspired to interfere illegally with a contract signed by Cathy Barnett, agreeing not to make negative comments about her former employer without the company's consent.
However, Judge W. Allen Pepper Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, Western Division, ruled Aug. 13 that Cooper's pact with Ms. Barnett was illegal itself ``because it allows for the real possibility of perpetrating and concealing a serious fraud upon a federal court.''
Judge Pepper said Cooper's agreement with Ms. Barnett ``goes against the canons of professional responsibility and violates the oath of office taken by every attorney admitted to this court. Paraphrasing Big Daddy Pollitt in Tennessee Williams' play `Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' the court indeed notices `a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity' surrounding this case.''
``In 30 years before the bar, I don't recall a court order this scathing,'' Mr. Kaster said regarding Judge Pepper's decision. He added that this is the first time, to his knowledge, that any manufacturer has sued any trial lawyers.
In a prepared statement, Cooper said Judge Pepper's decision ``was based upon serious factual errors,'' and added that it is considering all avenues of appeal. These would include a request for a rehearing before the full panel of judges for the Northern Mississippi court, or an appeal before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
A Cooper spokeswoman, however, declined to enumerate the factual errors the company cited, or make any other comment, because the case is still pending.
The current suit began with a case in Little Rock, Ark., federal court involving four people killed and two boys crippled for life in a 1998 two-car collision allegedly caused by the failure of a Cooper tire.
During that case, on Oct. 12, 2001, Ms. Barnett said in an affidavit that, on the order of a supervisor, she and another Cooper employee had burned documents relevant to the lawsuit. The judge, however, ordered Ms. Barnett's testimony stricken from the record in May 2002. Soon after, Cooper and the trial lawyers settled.
Ms. Barnett signed an agreement with Cooper on Oct. 19, 2001, resigning from the company and agreeing not to make negative statements about it without the tire maker's permission. According to Judge Pepper's decision, a second version of the agreement, dated Oct. 23, 2001, backdated the effective date to Oct. 4, 2001-eight days before Ms. Barnett made her affidavit about allegedly burning documents.
Besides Messrs. Kaster and Farese, Cooper also named Little Rock plaintiffs' attorney C. Tab Turner as a defendant in its suit. The district court dismissed Mr. Turner as a defendant last April; that dismissal is now on appeal before the Fifth Circuit appeals court.
Ms. Barnett is not and has never been a defendant in the current suit.