Source: Daily Report, by Katheryn Hayes Tucker
King & Spalding is facing a second demand to hand over its confidential internal communications about client General Motors so plaintiffs counsel can see what the firm's lawyers knew about an alleged cover-up of a deadly ignition switch defect.
A March 17 hearing on the same issue before Cobb County State Court Judge Kathryn Tanksley was canceled when, four days earlier, GM settled the underlying suit brought by Ken and Beth Melton over the car crash death of their daughter, Brooke.
"Simply because they settled it doesn't mean they get to cover up the fraud," said Texas plaintiffs lawyer Robert Hilliard in a phone interview Tuesday. "We are taking up the baton."
Hilliard issued a subpoena to King & Spalding to produce all documents related to the Melton case and other suits over the same defect grouped in multidistrict litigation before U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York.
Hilliard, a partner with Hilliard Munoz Gonzales in Corpus Christi, is one of three co-leaders of an attorney steering committee for the GM litigation. He said his firm is plaintiffs counsel in about 1,000 of 1,100 cases before Furman.
King & Spalding was prepared to fight the first subpoena in Cobb. King & Spalding's counsel in the Melton matter—a team of three lawyers at McKenna Long & Aldridge led by Buddy Darden—had briefed the matter. They argued that communication among the firm's lawyers was confidential work product and that the firm had no knowledge of any cover-up and had done nothing wrong.
Darden said he couldn't comment on the new subpoena, as did Robert Thornton of King & Spalding.
The new subpoena backs up a prediction made by Marietta plaintiffs lawyer Lance Cooper when he announced his clients, the Meltons, would withdraw their lawsuit for a confidential payment from GM. He said he expected other lawsuits to continue pursuing the facts behind the case. Cooper has other cases pending against GM over the same defective ignition switch that the company has now acknowledged caused the death of the Meltons' daughter. Cooper serves on Hilliard's steering committee for the multidistrict litigation.
Hilliard called the Melton settlement "the second time GM blinked," referring to a $5 million settlement the company paid the Meltons in 2013. The Meltons had attempted to rescind their deal and filed a new lawsuit against GM last year, saying executives lied about knowledge of the defect.
Hilliard suggested the timing of the second settlement—presumably at least $6 million, as GM refused to take back the initial $5 million payment, and a special mediator for GM was allowed to go beyond a $1 million settlement limit—was influenced by GM's desire to avoid the King & Spalding communications being made public.
"GM hid the ignition defect for a decade. If it used its counsel to actively advance the cover-up and by so doing more deaths and injuries resulted, then there may be fraud at many levels," Hilliard said. "Could the GM lawyers have helped save some of these young lives by speaking up? If so, what is the consequence of their prolonging by years this senseless national tragedy?"