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GM Battles To Withhold Safety Secrets

Connecticut Law Tribune

March 8, 2010

It’s a potentially explosive lawsuit focusing on the safety record of a major auto maker. And it has nothing to do with Toyota.

A small army of defense lawyers for once mighty General Motors is battling in Connecticut court to seal court documents that indicate that poorly designed seat backs may have led to numerous deaths and injuries.

The case stems from a products liability lawsuit filed by Stamford lawyer Brenden Leydon, of Tooher, Wocl & Leydon, on behalf of a Stamford waitress who was severely injured in an accident. On New Year’s Eve, the woman’s products liability case against
Saturn of Stamford took a dramatic turn when Leydon attached six memos to a motion to add four former GM safety employees as defendants.

Those documents were from a Philadelphia case that involved a woman who had been killed in an accident involving a GMmade vehicle. In the documents, GM engineers and lawyers discuss product safety, costs, strategies and legal vulnerability.

GM says the documents were supposed to have been sealed in the Philadelphia case, but were mistakenly filed as public documents. On Feb. 16, GM LLC – General Motors’ post-bankruptcy name – filed a motion to intervene in the Connecticut case. Its outside counsel, Wendy D. May of Houston, asked Leydon to return all copies of the exhibits to her and to join in GM’s motion to seal the documents in the Connecticut case.

He didn’t oblige. Leydon has made headlines opening up Greenwich beaches to greater public access. More recently, he was hired to represent a client injured after the accelerator of his Lexus went out of control.

Now he contends that GM’s seats likely caused more deaths than Toyota’s faulty accelerator pedals. “I think there’s a big public safety argument” at the heart of the litigation, said Leydon. “It’s not just a personal injury case.”

The court files in question, he said, are “just incredibly damaging documents.”

GM officials see it differently. GM spokesman Alan Adler told the Law Tribune these “documents are nearly 20 years old. They talk about vehicles that were developed in the late 1980s. Our vehicles now have completely different seat designs and specs. These aren’t relevant to any current GM product.”

Shipman & Goodwin lawyer Robert Simpson heads the long list of lawyers poised to represent GM; he directed questions to GM’s public relations department. Also involved are other attorneys at Shipman and Bingham McCutchen, as well as Texas lawyers who specialize in seat-back failure cases.

GM contends the court documents are its proprietary work product and exempt from disclosure under attorney-client privilege. The company claims competitors could use the information to make safer cars, arguably getting a free ride from GM research efforts. The hearing on the motion to seal the court file is set for March 30.

Related File(s)

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