A Texas woman who was paralyzed in a 2005 crash can pursue contempt of court action against Toyota Motor Corp. for allegedly hiding information about automobile defects, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Pennie Green became a quadriplegic at 17 when her 1997 Camry rolled over on a Johnson County highway, collapsing the roof down to the driver's side window sill.
Alleging defects in the roof structure and seat belts, Green sued Toyota and reached an out-of-court settlement of $1.5 million. Her lawsuit was dismissed in 2007.
Two years later, however, the Toyota lawyer who handled Green's case sued the carmaker in federal court, alleging that Toyota illegally concealed safety-related engineering documents in numerous lawsuits over fatal or catastrophic accidents — including Green's.
Toyota has denied the accusations by lawyer Dimitrios Biller, labeling him a disgruntled former employee.
At Green's urging, Johnson County District Judge John Neill last year launched an investigation into whether Toyota ought to be held in contempt of court and fined based on Biller's allegations. But with Biller preparing to testify in Neill's Cleburne court last February, the Texas Supreme Court halted those proceedings while it reviewed Toyota's request to prohibit Neill's inquiry.
Toyota argued that Neill did not have the authority to consider additional sanctions in a case that had ended more than two years earlier. Under Texas law, the trial court lost all jurisdiction in the case 30 days after Green's lawsuit was dismissed, Toyota's appellate lawyer, Ted Cruz of Houston, told the Supreme Court in briefs.
Green's lawyer, Jeff Embry of Tyler, noted that Neill ordered Toyota to disclose all relevant safety documents in 2006. Texas judges retain the power to enforce court orders, even in cases that have been dismissed, Embry argued.
"If Mr. Biller is telling the truth, then surely this conduct is an affront to the dignity of the court and warrants a contempt finding. Either way \u2026 Judge Neill must investigate," Embry told the court in briefs.
On Friday, the Supreme Court denied Toyota's request to intervene and lifted its stay on contempt proceedings. The court gave no reasons for its decision.
The ruling is expected to clear the way for Biller to testify about his 2003-07 stint as managing counsel in Toyota's Product Liability Group, where he defended against some of the largest product liability lawsuits against the company.
Biller already has provided internal documents to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, including his Sept. 1, 2005, memo warning supervisors that Toyota had failed to produce electronic documents despite court orders to do so. The company, he noted, had for years gathered information about design problems into "Books of Knowledge" meant to help engineers plan new autos.
"Clearly, this information should have been produced in litigation before today," he said in the memo.
A 2006 memo noted that Biller settled with Green for more money than anticipated because her lawyer's discovery efforts "were getting too close to requiring" Toyota to produce the Books of Knowledge.
Embry praised Friday's Supreme Court ruling, saying Neill "ought to be able to evaluate whether Toyota misled his court. This entire appeal been about Toyota trying to prevent that investigation."
If the judge issues a contempt fine against Toyota, Embry said he hopes the money will be directed to Green. No dollar figure was specified in Green's contempt motion.
Cruz, Toyota's lawyer and former solicitor general for Texas, did not return a call seeking comment.