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Judge reprimands Goodyear in suit Court sanctions tire maker for withholding documents

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PHOENIX—In a stinging 66-page order, an Arizona federal judge has sanctioned Goodyear and two attorneys representing Goodyear for allegedly withholding documents in a seven-year-old product liability case.

In her Nov. 8 ruling, Chief Justice Roslyn O. Silver of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona gave Leroy Haeger, the litigant in the case, until Dec. 14 to file a motion for Goodyear and its attorneys, Graeme Hancock and Basil Musnuff, to reimburse him for attorneys' fees incurred in his lengthy legal action against the Akron-based tire maker.

Judge Silver also said Mr. Haeger was free both to renegotiate his settlement agreement with Goodyear and to pursue a separate action for fraud.

“Litigation is not a game,” Judge Silver wrote in the first paragraph of her ruling. “It is the time-honored method of seeking the truth, finding the truth, and doing justice.

“When a corporation and its counsel refuse to produce directly relevant information an opposing party is entitled to receive, they have abandoned these basic principles in favor of their own interests.”

The case began in June 2003 when Mr. Haeger, his wife Donna and their children Barry and Suzanne went on vacation in their Gulf Stream motor home. The vehicle was equipped with Goodyear G159 tires.

While on the highway, a front tire on the Haegers' motor home failed, causing the vehicle to veer off the road and tip over. All four of the Haegers were seriously injured.

Leroy Haeger and his insurance carrier, Farmers Insurance Co., filed suit in 2005, claiming that G159 tires were defective if used on motor homes. They were designed only for use on pickup and delivery trucks, they said.

According to Judge Silver, Goodyear and its attorneys spent years ignoring or objecting to the plaintiffs' requests for production of documents. This included at one point denying the existence of the results of high-speed testing of G159 tires, she said.

“Goodyear and its attorneys developed a strategy, implemented in this case to great effect, to resist all legitimate discovery, withhold obviously (Judge Silver's italics) responsive documents, allow plaintiffs and their experts to operate under erroneous facts, disclose small subsets of documents as late as possible, and otherwise turn this case based on a motor vehicle accident into an Arizona version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce,” the judge wrote.

Jarndyce v. Jarndyce was an endless court case created by Charles Dickens in his novel, Bleak House.

In apportioning sanctions, Judge Silver made Mr. Hancock responsible for 20 percent of fees and costs, and Goodyear and Mr. Musnuff jointly responsible for the remaining 80 percent.

Spartan Motors Inc., manufacturer of the chassis on the Haegers' motor home, also requested repayment of attorneys' fees from Goodyear.

Judge Silver denied Spartan's claim, ruling the company did not show specifically how it was harmed by Goodyear's withholding of documents.

She added, however, that Spartan probably could present a viable case of fraud against Goodyear in a separate lawsuit.

“The actions of Judge Silver and her staff reflect an unwavering commitment to the pursuit of truth consistent with the highest standards of American jurisprudence,” said David L. Kurtz, attorney for Leroy Haeger, after the judge issued her ruling.

In a statement, Goodyear said it was disappointed in Judge Silver's ruling and was reviewing its avenues of appeal. “Goodyear takes its discovery obligations very seriously,” the company said.



To reach this reporter: mmoore@crain.com; 202-662-7211.
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