By Harry Stoffer
Automotive News / October 03, 2005
A California court has been asked to open sealed records relating to an expert witness for automakers who was accused of tampering with evidence.
Robert Gratzinger, who regularly testifies for automakers in lawsuits, was accused of misconduct during a 2002 trial involving a Honda rollover accident.
But records were sealed when American Honda Motor Co. settled the case. And the tampering allegation cannot be raised to challenge the credibility of the expert in new cases, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers and the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group.
So, in an unusual legal maneuver, two trial lawyers and the center are asking the Superior Court of Placer County, Calif., to unseal the records from the 3-year-old settlement. They believe the decision could influence a series of cases pending against automakers.
“I’m confident that we’re going to prevail,” Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based center, told Automotive News last week.
A hearing is expected late this month.
Belted or not?
Ditlow says he saw key records before they were sealed. In a sworn statement to the court, he says a judicial opinion from the 2002 case “documents the intentional destruction of evidence by an expert witness in an auto safety case and the perpetuation of that misconduct by an attorney representing the car manufacturer.”
Media reports at the time said that Gratzinger asked to examine the crashed car, a 1993 Honda Civic. During the examination, he touched a seat belt with a cloth. A Honda lawyer, Paul Cereghini, prevented a plaintiff’s lawyer from retrieving the cloth, the reports said.
One issue in the case was whether the plaintiff, passenger Sarah Davis, was wearing her seat belt before the rollover crash that made her a quadriplegic. Lawyers for Davis claimed Gratzinger used the cloth to wipe important marks from the belt latch. The marks were thought by Davis’ lawyers to include scuffs, fingerprints and bits of plastic, all possibly indicative that the belt had been in use.
The judge in the case held a hearing on the tampering claim and voided Honda’s defense. A settlement, said in media reports to be worth tens of millions of dollars, soon followed.
The Center for Auto Safety and trial lawyers Patrick Ardis and Lee Griffin say the order to seal the records did not comply with court rules on secrecy. They say the order be should be revised to allow the tampering allegation to be raised in other cases.
Gratzinger, a former General Motors and Nissan North America Inc. employee, is president of Gratzinger Engineering & Consulting of Irvine, Calif.
Calls to the company early last week were not returned. The Sacramento Bee reported in October 2002 that Gratzinger told the court he merely removed dust from the belt.
Honda, which plans to oppose the motion to unseal the record, said in a statement prepared for Automotive News: “The judge vacated his original order as a matter of judicial discretion, and there is no reason whatsoever to reopen this matter.”