ATLANTA - An appeals court here has chastised U.S. District Judge J. Robert Elliott of Columbus, Ga., for declaring Mazda Motor Corp. the loser in a product liability case without giving the company a trial.
Elliott also was removed from the case.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Elliott abused his power by ordering Mazda to turn over volumes of documents to the plaintiffs without considering the carmaker's objections and by ruling that Mazda had forfeited its right to a trial when it failed to comply.
'This case illustrates the mischief that results when a district court effectively abdicates its responsibility to manage a case,' Chief Circuit Judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat wrote in the decision.
Elliott, 87, did not return a phone call from an Associated Press reporter. His secretary told Automotive News that Elliott did not comment on pending litigation.
The 11th Circuit rejected another controversial decision from him last year, saying he overstepped his authority when he fined DuPont $115 million for withholding evidence in a suit over its Benlate fungicide.
In the Mazda case, Bhupendra and Gunvanti Chudasama sued the carmaker in 1993, two years after their MPV minivan crashed into a utility pole. The couple said defective brakes likely caused Bhupendra Chudasama to lose control of the vehicle and the vehicle's side panels failed to protect his wife from injury.
The couple demanded reams of documents from Mazda, but the company argued that the request was unreasonable and some of the information might harm the carmaker if acquired by competitors.
Mazda asked the court at least 20 times to address its concerns about the broad request, but Elliott never ruled on Mazda's motions and ordered it to hand over the documents. Mazda did make some information available, but withheld other documents for several months.
In 1995, Elliott scolded the company for what he called 'unbelievably flagrant' conduct and decided the company had forfeited its right to a trial. He ordered Mazda to pay damages to the Chudasamas, plus expenses and attorneys' costs, and said a jury should decide the amount.
'The cagey ploy used by the defendants to conceal the truth about similar accidents ... (shows) they simply cannot be trusted,' he wrote.
The appeals court said the punishment was too severe. Elliott disregarded Mazda's requests for rulings on its motions and ordered the company to hand over vast amounts of information without giving it any guidance, the panel said. It reassigned the case to another district.
'We have confidence that a new judge who properly manages this case will need little time to get up to speed,' Tjoflat's ruling said.
Mazda spokesman Jay Amestoy said, 'Obviously Mazda is very pleased with what we see as a very well reasoned and excellent opinion. From our point of view, this brings to light some of the outrageous tactics that some plaintiffs' attorneys' try to use.
The Chudasamas' attorney, William Stone of Blakely, Ga., declined to comment on the decision, but did say, 'We've got some really good documents' for the trial.