High court to rule on bid by GM to block testimony Automaker guards files in liability cases

March 25, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court stepped into a long-running feud between General Motors Corp. and one of its former design experts yesterday by agreeing to rule on the auto maker's right to stop the ex-employee's testimony against it in highway crash cases.

The outcome could have a wide effect on companies' chances of keeping inside secrets from being used against them in lawsuits involving defective products.

That issue is becoming a major one in the tobacco industry. Four cigarette companies are asking a state judge in North Carolina to stop Liggett Group executives from revealing industry secrets when they testify in lawsuits against those four companies by 22 states.

In the GM case, a 30-year employee, Ronald Elwell, who long served on an engineering staff overseeing vehicle performance, has testified several times in recent years against GM in lawsuits involving fiery crashes. He is an expert in fuel-fed vehicle fires.

Elwell testified in a Missouri case that stemmed from a crash in which a woman burned to death when a faulty fuel pump in a Chevrolet S-10 Blazer kept feeding gasoline to a fire in the engine compartment. Elwell's testimony helped the woman's two young sons win $11.3 million in damages.

GM had tried to stop Elwell's testimony in Missouri, saying it would violate an agreement he had made with the company in a separate lawsuit in Michigan. He had agreed not to testify against GM in liability cases thereafter, and that promise had been incorporated into a Michigan court order.

After the Missouri trial, a federal appeals court ruled that Elwell should not have been allowed to testify. Missouri courts were required, under the Constitution's full faith and credit clause, to respect the Michigan court order, the appeals court said.

When the Supreme Court decides the issue, sometime next year, it is expected to sort out states' obligation to respect each other's no-testimony decrees.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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