In February and March the MoJo Wire reported how Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr in a 1993 lawsuit avidly suppressed key General Motors internal documents which reveal the apparent perjury of a GM engineer concerning GM’s vulnerable fuel tank design. Two weeks ago a Florida jury, the first to see those crucial documents, delivered a $33 million judgment against the corporation for a fuel-tank fire that killed two people.
The Broward County jury awarded Robert and Constance McGee a total of $60 million in damages for the death of their 13-year-old son Shane McGee, who died along with cousin Nancy Hawthorne when the fuel tank in the family’s 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass station wagon exploded in a 1991 accident. Jurors found GM to be 55 percent liable for the boy’s death due to its fuel tank design.
The other driver in the accident was deemed 45 percent responsible because his trailer came loose from his truck and slammed into the McGee vehicle, puncturing the fuel tank and sparking the fatal fire.
The GM documents, including the 1981 interview with GM engineer Edward Ivey which Starr suppressed, were released this year by the judge in the Florida case, GM’s longest liability case ever.
Ivey has testified under oath in numerous trials that he could not remember why he did a 1973 cost-benefit analysis of fire deaths in GM vehicles, in which he valued a human life at $200,000. But in the suppressed interview, Ivey told GM lawyers he did it for Oldsmobile management to help them weigh the cost of fire-death litigation and “figure out how much Olds could spend on fuel systems.” Other GM documents show the company studied the cost of fixing its vulnerable tanks, but chose not to fix them until 1988.
In a statement issued by GM after the verdict on May 18, the company said the jury was “obscured in their analysis by improper evidentiary rulings throughout the trial.” According to GM spokesman Kyle Johnson, the judge’s “improper” rulings were those that allowed the damaging Ivey documents into evidence.
The company vowed to appeal the decision. If successful, it would be at least the third time that GM counsel have overturned a judge who ruled the Ivey documents into evidence. Twice it was done by Starr himself.
Joe McCray, a San Francisco attorney who has battled GM in more than 25 cases, said the $33 million judgment is “pocket change” for GM but that the verdict may hurt GM’s prospects in subsequent trials. “I fully intend to make it a problem for them in the future,” said McCray. “These verdicts do not come along everyday. It is difficult to hold [large corporations] accountable; hopefully they will take more care in designing their fuel tanks.”
Starr’s lead role in suppressing the Ivey documents led one trial attorney to lodge a formal obstruction of justice charge against him in March with the Department of Justice. The charge is still sitting on Attorney General Janet Reno’s desk; a spokesperson said the Department of Justice is deferring action on it until the judge in the Monica Lewinsky case rules on other charges against Starr filed by President Clinton’s attorney David Kendall.
Ironically, Kenneth Starr made a speech Monday to a county bar association in Charlotte, N.C., cautioning the attorneys not to abuse the legal system to obstruct truth and justice. Defense lawyers, Starr intoned, “have a duty not to use their skills to impede the search for truth.”
“At what point,” Starr asked rhetorically, “does a lawyer’s manipulation of the system become an obstruction of the truth?”