Court Reverses GM Liability Case
By Laurie Asseo
WASHINGTON (AP) Courts in one state cannot bar judges in another from hearing testimony they deem relevant, the Supreme Court ruled today as it gave new life to a multimillion dollar lawsuit against General Motors by the sons of a woman who died in a fiery highway crash.
Ruling unanimously in a Missouri case, the justices said a decision issued in one state could not be used to keep a man from testifying in a separate lawsuit in another state.
The justices reversed a lower court ruling that had thrown out an $11.3 million damage award against General Motors.
A Missouri trial court had ordered GM to pay the award to the sons of Beverly Garner of Bevier, Mo., who died in 1990 after the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer in which she was riding collided with another vehicle and caught fire. A lower court threw out the award because the trial included testimony from former GM employee Ronald Elwell, barred by a Michigan judge from testifying against GM.
The case still must go back to a judge for a new trial because the damage award also was invalidated for other reasons, said Jonathan Massey, a lawyer for the woman's sons.
Massey said the ruling means "courts in one state don't decide the rights of people in other states." If the justices had ruled otherwise, he said it would have created "a tremendous obstacle to public and private suits" by allowing more exclusion of witnesses' testimony.
The Constitution requires courts in one state to give "full faith and credit" to court actions in other states.
But the justices said that rule did not mean the Michigan court could bar testimony in a lawsuit filed in Missouri by people who were not involved in the Michigan case.
"Michigan has no power over those parties," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court.
"Michigan lacks authority to control courts elsewhere by precluding them, in actions brought by strangers to the Michigan litigation, from determining for themselves what witnesses are competent to testify and what evidence is relevant and admissible," Ginsburg added.
However, the Michigan order does bar GM and Elwell from suing each other over the same issues in another state, Ginsburg said.
The Bakers were awarded $11.3 million from GM in 1993. The trial jury decided that gasoline spilling from a defective fuel pump caused the fire.
But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the award because the trial included testimony from Elwell. He earlier had agreed to a Michigan court order that barred him from testifying in lawsuits against GM.
The appeals court said the Constitution required the Missouri judge to honor the Michigan court order.
The Bakers appealed to the Supreme Court, saying they should not be bound by the Michigan ruling because they were not involved in the case and therefore had no chance to argue against the decision.
GM's lawyers said that if the Bakers wanted Elwell's testimony, they could have gone to Michigan and asked the court to lift its order.
Today, the Supreme Court said the 8th Circuit court was wrong.
Michigan could bar Elwell from volunteering his testimony, Ginsburg wrote. But it could not shield him from another state's subpoena power, she added.
"A Michigan court cannot ... dictate to a court in another jurisdiction that evidence relevant in the Bakers' case a controversy to which Michigan is foreign shall be inadmissible," she wrote.
Ginsburg said the ruling "creates no general exception" to the full faith and credit rule, adding that state courts still must honor other state courts' judgments on other matters.
"But a Michigan decree cannot command obedience elsewhere on a matter the Michigan court lacks authority to resolve," she wrote.
The case is Baker vs. GM, 96-653.
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press