Federal judge scolds GM lawyers in lawsuit

March 04, 1994|By New York Times News Service

A federal judge in South Carolina said in an order that he believed lawyers for General Motors Corp. may have destroyed, or been aware of the destruction, of documents related to a fire-prone pickup truck made by the company that has been the subject of lawsuits.

In an order issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Ross Anderson Jr. said that he believed that there had been a "systematic destruction" of documents concerning Chevrolet and GM pickups made from 1973 to 1987 with dual, side-mounted gas tanks.

Judge Anderson also said that he believed GM lawyers had lied about the matter.

In a statement issued yesterday, GM said that it "strongly disagreed" with the judge's order. The company has previously denied suggestions that it altered or destroyed safety documents.

It is not clear what impact, if any, the judge's statements will have. He made them after reviewing hundreds of GM documents, but did so while withdrawing from a lawsuit by two brothers who were burned in the 1990 crash of a GM pickup truck.

Judge Anderson said that he was withdrawing to avoid any appearance of bias.

Should a new judge agree with Judge Anderson's order, he could order GM to show hundreds of documents that the company has asserted are confidential.

In December, Judge Anderson ruled that GM had to turn over documents to the brothers' lawyers that the automaker asserts are confidential. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., has stayed that order and is reviewing the matter.

GM lawyers had sought Judge Anderson's removal from the case, asserting that he is biased. As evidence, they cited comments that he made during a recent meeting of South Carolina plaintiffs' lawyers in which he suggested that some defense lawyers limited their exercise to "stretching the truth."

In his order on Monday, Judge Anderson rejected GM's arguments that he is biased but said that he would voluntarily withdraw from the case to avoid any appearance that his attendance at the South Carolina meeting might compromise his impartiality. Judge Anderson also said that his comments at the plaintiffs' meeting had been made in jest.

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