DETROIT - DaimlerChrysler is asking a Detroit judge to set aside a $21 million jury verdict in a sexual-harassment case there, or to grant the company a new trial.
The automaker's lawyers have alleged that the plaintiff's attorney in last summer's case lied to the judge and jury during the trial.
Linda Gilbert, the first female millwright at the Jefferson North assembly plant, brought the case. Gilbert filed a lawsuit in 1994, alleging that factory coworkers victimized her with pornographic Polaroid photographs and cartoons, lewd jokes and off-color behavior. Gilbert, a recovering alcoholic, said the harassment drove her to resume drinking, and made her depressed and suicidal.
A jury awarded Gilbert $21 million in July. That verdict has since risen to $31 million with interest dating back to the date the lawsuit was filed.
DaimlerChrysler has filed a motion to challenge the verdict Dec. 10 in Wayne Circuit Court in Detroit. The company claims that Gilbert's attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, and his key witness lied to the judge and jury about their relationship and the witness' qualifications.
Fieger's own lawyers call the DaimlerChrysler claims a 'red herring,' and the 'hysterical effort' of a new law firm to undo a jury decision that resulted from 'inadequate trial preparation and trial performance' by DaimlerChrysler's attorneys.
DaimlerChrysler lawyers also lambasted Fieger for 'inflammatory and demagogic attacks' on DaimlerChrysler. They cite his allusion to 'sending a message' to the Stuttgart, Germany-based company, while making comparisons between Gilbert's sexual-harassment claims and the Nazi mistreatment of Jews during World War II.
Fieger 'improperly appealed to the passion and prejudice of the jury throughout the trial,' the DaimlerChrysler lawyers argued in their motion for a new trial.
DaimlerChrysler maintained that it had acted on Gilbert's complaints when she made them, and that in four of her five complaints, she refused to name her suspected harassers.
DaimlerChrysler lawyers have accused Fieger of 'orchestrating false testimony' about Gilbert's medical condition and about the credentials of a key witness, social worker Stephen Hnat. The automaker claims that Fieger and Hnat misled the court by misrepresenting their relationship and improperly withholding evidence.
The automaker has challenged Hnat's lack of medical credentials and his testimony about Gilbert's psychiatric condition. Hnat, who was Fieger's key witness in the case, treated Gilbert as a therapist for alcohol problems during 1992 and 1993.
DaimlerChrysler's attorneys have asked Wayne Circuit Judge John Murphy to set aside the verdict, reduce the award or grant a new trial.
It is not unusual for a company to challenge a jury verdict as DaimlerChrysler is doing. But it is unusual for a company's attorneys to charge that an opposing lawyer acted fraudulently.
'That fraud charge is a lot of nonsense, a red herring,' said William McHenry, who assisted Fieger in the trial.
During opening remarks in the jury trial, Fieger had said he had casually known Hnat for years. Fieger, who gained national attention as the attorney for assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian, was the Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan in 1998. Fieger said the social worker worked full time on his campaign, and with the Fieger firm on cases during 1998 and 1999.
Fieger and Hnat now say Fieger sought advice from the social worker on an informal, unpaid basis over the years. Earlier this year, Hnat appeared on TV, stating he has worked with Fieger since the late 1980s.
In his response to the DaimlerChrysler motions seeking to overturn the verdict or obtain a new trial, Fieger's attorney claims the automaker 'grossly underdefended the case at trial' and now 'engages in an hysterical effort to undo a jury result.'
Fieger's attorney claims DaimlerChrysler conducted no depositions of any witnesses except Gilbert, submitted no question lists and never asked the court to compel discovery of any information they believed was being withheld.
Last August, a Michigan appeals court dismissed a $15 million, medical-malpractice jury verdict that Fieger won in 1997. That court called Fieger's courtroom conduct 'truly egregious - far exceeding permissible bounds.'