Calif. court opens Honda trial record

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By Harry Stoffer
Automotive News / November 14, 2005

WASHINGTON — A California court is unsealing a case record that includes details of allegations that an expert witness for automakers tampered with evidence.

The decision is a victory for people who sue car companies, say groups that support litigants.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers can mention the tampering allegations in cases where the expert testifies for automaker defendants, says Rebecca Epstein, staff attorney with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. Judges will rule whether to allow use of the 3-year-old case record.

Automakers should not be allowed to use courts to conceal information that should be public, Epstein argues.

Trial Lawyers for Public Justice calls itself a national public interest law firm, funded by a nonprofit foundation. The firm sought to open the court record for the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington consumer group, and for two trial lawyers with cases against automakers. Placer County, Calif., Superior Court Judge James Garbolino ruled in their favor Oct. 26.

American Honda Motor Co., the lead defendant in the California case, may appeal.

“Honda wholeheartedly disagrees with the court’s actions in this matter,” says a statement faxed to Automotive News from the office of Jeffrey Smith, Honda’s assistant vice president for corporate affairs and communications.

Repeated attempts to reach the expert witness, Robert Gratzinger of Irvine, Calif., were unsuccessful.

Garbolino presided at the Honda trial, which involved a rollover crash. The judge ruled that Gratzinger intentionally rubbed marks from a seat belt latch while he was inspecting a wrecked car. Honda lawyer Paul Cereghini kept the cloth Gratzinger used, Garbolino ruled.

Media reports quoted Gratzinger as saying he merely removed dust from the belt.

But the judge said “the conduct by Honda defendants is of a most serious and egregious nature.” Garbolino directed a verdict in favor of plaintiff Sarah Davis and resumed the trial on the issue of damages. Honda settled the case, and the record was sealed.

A key issue was whether 17-year-old Davis, a passenger in a 1993 Honda Civic, was wearing her seat belt when it rolled. She had injuries that made her a quadriplegic.