ATLANTA (Feb. 7, 2012)—An Atlanta federal court judge has sanctioned Michelin North America Inc. and its attorneys for alleged bad faith conduct in an ongoing product liability case involving a Uniroyal Laredo tire.
Judge Amy Totenberg of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled Jan. 13 that Michelin and its attorneys willfully withheld documents requested by attorneys for Johnny and Patricia Bates.
“Plaintiffs have demonstrated that Michelin has engaged in a pattern of subterfuge in withholding relevant and responsive documents until plaintiffs are forced to seek the court's intervention,” Totenberg wrote in her decision.
Totenberg granted the plaintiffs' motion to issue a finding that the Uniroyal tire was “defective and unreasonably dangerous,” but declined to impose a further stipulation that the tire failed because it was defective. “The sanction applied is sufficient under the circumstances to address the scope of Michelin's discovery abuse,” she said.
Totenberg also ordered Michelin to submit unredacted copies of the documents in question for the court's inspection, as well as granting the plaintiffs the right to file a petition for reimbursement of attorneys' fees associated with the motion for sanctions.
Michelin could file an objection to the reasonableness of the fees within 15 days of receiving the reimbursement petition, she ruled.
In a statement, Michelin said it disagreed strongly with Totenberg's order.
“It unfairly sanctions Michelin's good faith discovery efforts by precluding the presentation of evidence that is critical to the company's defense,” the Greenville, S.C.-based tire maker said.
“Michelin always approaches discovery in good faith and with integrity,” it said. “We have total confidence in the quality of our tires and our manufacturing processes. Michelin will continue to defend itself vigorously in this case.”
The original case was filed in the Georgia court in November 2009. According to the complaint, Johnny Bates was driving his GMC Jimmy northbound on I-85 in Fairburn, Ga., on Christmas Day, 2008. Patricia Bates was a passenger.
A Uniroyal Laredo tire manufactured at Ardmore, Okla., in 2000 was mounted on the left rear of the vehicle, the complaint said. The tire came apart, causing the vehicle to roll over. Johnny Bates was left quadriplegic from the accident, and Patricia Bates also was seriously injured.
The lawsuit alleged the tire was defective. “Such inability to control the vehicle after a catastrophic tire failure was foreseeable to the Michelin defendants,” it said.
The Johnny and Patricia Bates asked the court for an unspecified amount of compensatory damages, plus punitive damages “in an amount determined by the enlightened conscience of the jury sufficient to punish the Michelin defendants,” the complaint said.
In January 2010, attorneys for the Bateses requested documents from Michelin. Michelin, claiming that the documents contained confidential trade secrets, produced what Totenberg called “a strikingly small number of documents” in April 2010.
In November 2010, the Bateses' attorneys filed a motion asking the court to compel Michelin to produce documents related to design and production tolerances, adjustment data and specific defects. The court ordered Michelin in January 2011 to produce nearly all the documents the plaintiffs requested.
Michelin lost a motion for reconsideration in April 2011. In July, according to Totenberg, the company produced adjustment data charts so redacted as to be indecipherable. Other documents, relating to tire defects and other issues, were not produced, she said.
“Michelin's conduct has certainly resulted in delay and disruption of this litigation and has hampered the enforcement of this court's discovery orders,” Totenberg wrote.