Toyota Motor Corp. must face charges that it acted in contempt of court in a 2007 lawsuit involving a paralyzed woman, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled.
Pennie Green, permanently injured five years ago when her Camry rolled over, originally settled the personal injury suit for $1.5 million. But last fall she filed a motion in state court alleging that the automaker had deliberately withheld documents related to vehicle safety in the course of that case, leading her to settle rather than seek more money or go to trial.
In late February, Toyota asked the state's highest judicial body to stay that case and dismiss the contempt motion, arguing that the courts did not have jurisdiction in the matter. On Friday, however, the court lifted the stay, allowing the proceedings to continue.
The ruling could have serious implications for Toyota. If Greene's allegations are upheld the Japanese automaker could face not only a civil sanction, but also the prospect that dozens — if not hundreds — of other long-closed lawsuits against the automaker could be reconsidered on similar grounds.
Green's attorney, Jeff Embry, said that if Toyota was hit with a contempt ruling his client would consider asking the court to reopen her personal injury case. "Ms. Green is going to want to consider her options," Embry said.
Toyota is facing hundreds of lawsuits stemming from its rash of sudden-acceleration-related recalls over the last year. The company in April agreed to pay a record $16.4-million fine to regulators for delaying a recall for gas pedals that can stick.
"Toyota is confident that we have acted appropriately with respect to product-liability litigation and our discovery practices, including in the Green case," the company said in a statement. "We are considering our options related to this ruling and intend to vigorously defend ourselves against any claims of impropriety in this matter."
Green's original suit against Toyota, alleging that the 1997 Camry had defects in the design of its roof and seat belts, was settled out of court and subsequently dismissed in April 2007.
In September she filed the contempt motion, based on allegations made by Dimitrios Biller, a former Toyota lawyer who defended the company in her case and has since left the company.
According to Biller's suit against Toyota, filed in federal court in California, Toyota "conspired and continues to conspire, to unlawfully withhold evidence from plaintiffs" in rollover cases. Biller specifically mentioned several cases he handled for Toyota, among them the Green case.
In a 2006 internal e-mail subpoenaed by Congress this year, Biller wrote that he was forced to settle with Green to prevent her from gaining access to certain company documents, known as "Books of Knowledge."
"Frankly," Biller wrote in the e-mail, "plaintiff's discovery efforts … were getting too close to requiring [Toyota] to produce the 'Books of Knowledge.' "
Biller had been subpoenaed to testify in the Green case in February, but just before his appearance, Toyota asked the state Supreme Court for the stay. The automaker's attorney in the case, former Texas Solicitor Gen. R. Ted Cruz, argued that the state court lost jurisdiction 30 days after the case was originally dismissed.
With the stay lifted, Biller will probably be able to testify in the matter, which is before Johnson County District Judge John Neill in Cleburne, outside Fort Worth. Embry said he would attempt to get Biller back in court as soon as possible and that he expected a formal hearing on the contempt motion in as little as four weeks.
"We are disappointed that Mr. Biller is using the tragedy of Ms. Green's accident to further his own claims against Toyota, which we strongly dispute and will continue to fight," the company said in its statement.
Biller's own suit against Toyota, filed in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, is pending and in arbitration. The arbitrator in that case is considering whether thousands of Toyota documents held by Biller are privileged or whether they can be made public based on Biller's charges that they contain evidence of fraud.
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