Honda witness destroyed proof
WASHINGTON -- A leading expert witness who has testified on behalf of automakers in vehicle rollover trials destroyed evidence in a high-profile case involving Honda Motor Co., according to a California court ruling unsealed this week.
The expert, Robert Gratzinger, is an engineer who worked for General Motors Corp. and Nissan Corp. between 1971 and 1994. He has testified about the safety of roof designs and seat belts for GM, Ford, Nissan, Toyota and Mazda and Isuzu in addition to Honda.
In a 2002 case involving a 17-year-old girl paralyzed after a 1993 Honda Civic overturned, Gratzinger deliberately destroyed evidence that suggested the victim was belted at the time of the crash, according to a ruling by California Superior Court Judge James Garbolino.
The ruling, which had been sealed since 2002, said Gratzinger's tampering made a fair trial impossible. Garbolino directed a verdict in favor of the crash victim, Sarah Davis. Garbolino said Honda was trying to "win by cheating."
In an Oct. 3, 2002, court order, Garbolino said that during the trial, Gratzinger was given permission to examine the Civic that crashed. During his examination of the victim's seat belt, Gratzinger applied a grease rag, destroying marks on the belt that could have determined whether Davis wore the belt -- a key issue in whether the design of the vehicle contributed to her injuries.
"It is the court's opinion that the conduct by Honda defendants is of a most serious and egregious nature," Garbolino wrote. "This conduct should trigger a sanction which not only punishes Honda for its deliberate destruction of evidence which supports plantiffs case, but should deter future similar conduct."
But after an out-of-court deal in which Honda agreed to a settlement reportedly in excess of $10 million, the judge sealed his 36-page decision that described Gratzinger's tampering with the evidence.
Over the past three years, Gratzinger has testified in some 20 rollover cases involving roof intrusion, and plaintiff attorneys have been forbidden by the court order to question his credibility.
Plaintiff attorneys, who have pushed to unseal the ruling, were jubilant about the court's decision.
"People left in wheelchairs by crashes will no longer have to sit in silence while Mr. Gratzinger testifies," said Rebecca Epstein, an attorney for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a Washington group that sued to make the court rulings public.
Epstein said corporations have routinely asked for secrecy in court cases, and courts have sometimes grated the motions without a lot of scrutiny.
"This validates the public's First Amendment right to know what was discussed in this case."
The group worked with the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based watchdog that was concerned about the case.
"When you close these cases, it is not protecting the public's interest in full and fair disclosure about the risks they face," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the center.
Honda Motor Co. officials said they could not comment on the case. A massage left at Gratzinger's home in California Thursday evening was not returned.
Donald Heller, a Sacramento lawyer hired by Honda to argue against making Garbolino's Oct. 3, 2002 order public, said the judge had nullified his decision at the time of the settlement, in part because Honda was going to appeal it. "I don't think the order has any value because it was vacated," Heller said.
But in his Oct. 26 ruling making the document public, Garbolino makes clear the decision directed a verdict and made orders that would affect the future of the trial.
"The decision was neither interim nor was it tentative," Garbolino wrote.
The ruling could make it harder for auto companies that have relied on Gratzinger's expertise to defend themselves in future lawsuits. Automakers are facing hundreds of lawsuits involving the question of whether roof structures and seat-belt designs are adequate to protect passengers in rollover crashes.
In 2004, The Detroit News published a three-day series investigating a 33-year auto industry campaign to defend a roof-strength standard that is much weaker than what happens in real-world rollover crashes.
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