Judge John Neill of the 18th District Court on Wednesday ordered a former Toyota Motor Corp. attorney to hand over documents related to a 2005 case in which a Joshua woman sued the company after an accident left her a quadriplegic.
The contents of attorney Dimitrios Biller’s documents could be relevant to a possible contempt-of-court action against the carmaker in regards to the case filed by Pennie Green.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled Aug. 27 that Green could pursue a contempt action against Toyota for allegedly hiding information about automobile defects.
Green’s 1997 Toyota Camry rolled over in 2005, causing the roof to collapse down to the driver’s side window sill. The accident left Green, 17 at the time, a quadriplegic.
Green sued Toyota in the 18th District Court, alleging defects to the car’s seat belts and roof structure. Her lawsuit was dismissed in 2007 after she reached an out-of-court settlement for $1.5 million.
Biller, however, a Toyota lawyer involved in Green’s case, sued the carmaker in federal court two years later, alleging that Toyota illegally concealed safety related engineering documents in numerous lawsuits, including Green’s.
Toyota labeled Biller a disgruntled former employee and denied the accusations.
Biller later supplied internal documents to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, including his Sept. 1, 2005, memo warning that Toyota supervisors had failed to produce electronic documents despite court orders to do so.
Neill last year launched an investigation into whether Toyota ought to be held in contempt of court and fined based on Biller’s allegations.
Biller was scheduled to testify in Neill’s court in February until the Texas Supreme Court halted proceedings to review Toyota’s request to prohibit further action.
Toyota’s lawyers argued that Neill’s court lost jurisdiction over the matter shortly after the dismissal of Green’s case.
Green’s lawyer, Jeff Embry of Tyler, argued that Neill ordered Toyota to disclose the relevant safety in 2006 and added that Texas judges retain the power to enforce court orders, even after cases have been dismissed.
The Texas Supreme Court gave no reasons for its August ruling but did lift the stay on further proceedings in the matter.
Toyota lawyer Kurt Kern argued that Embry has no further standing in the case. Embry argued that he could provide information on how Toyota’s alleged refusal to turn over requested documents impacted Green’s case.
Neill appeared to lean toward the position that, having brought the matter of Toyota’s alleged failure to produce evidence to the attention of the court, Embry’s involvement in the matter is now completed. Nonetheless, Neill made no ruling on Embry’s standing or continued involvement in the case.
Embry urged Neill to take the documents in question into evidence and to question Biller, who was in the courtroom Wednesday.
Neill said he was not prepared to question Biller, having not had the chance to see the documents.
Both Biller and Toyota apparently have copies of the documents.
Embry urged Neill to take copies from both into evidence in order to compare them.
Kern said the Toyota attorneys did not have the documents with them and argued against Biller being allowed to submit his documents. Kern also accused Embry of going on a “fishing expedition” in search of information outside the scope of the current matter before the court. Kern further argued that injunctions in other courts prohibit Biller from releasing the documents in question.
Neill initially requested only those documents that he ordered to be produced in the original 2005 case, Neill subsequently, against Kern’s objections, allowed Biller to submit e-mails and other documents that allegedly prove the existence of documents ordered to be submitted that no longer exist.
Some of that information, Kerns argued, could be privileged company information produced while Biller was still employed by Toyota.
“If an e-mail talks about not producing a document, or destroying a document, that goes straight to the heart of the matter,” Embry argued. “The court is fully capable of reading an e-mail and determining it’s not applicable to the case and setting it aside.”
“If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there, and that will end the matter.” Neill said. “If there are documents that were not turned over that [are relevant to the case], then I’ll get into the motives of why.”
Kern informed Neill that Toyota lawyers had filed a motion for a rehearing on the matter with the Texas Supreme Court, which is pending. Kern argued that Embry’s subpoena to bring Biller to court was not valid.
Neill nonetheless swore Biller in as a witness although he did not question him on Tuesday.
Neill said he would have to study the documents before deciding whether further action is warranted.