Pickup Games

How a giant lawsuit against General Motors could leave lawyers with millions - and Texas truck owners breathing fumes

When Ron and Regina Godbey in January 1992 bought a used charcoal-gray General Motors Silverado pickup, they fell in love.

"It was beautiful," remembers Ron, a skinny 25-year-old insurance salesman. "People used to stop us in the parking lot and ask to look inside."

The Godbeys, who live in a modest southeast Dallas neighborhood, were so fond of their 1987 model pickup that they spent $700 to add a pair of custom velour-covered bucket seats and install a mahogany-veneer console.

Their rapture lasted less than a year.
By the middle of the next year, the Godbeys began hearing that theirs was among some 6.3 million GM pickups nationwide with "side-saddle" dual gas tanks extending outside the vehicle's frame rails--a design that some auto-safety experts were warning could cause a fireball upon impact.

Though GM has repeatedly denied the design, which it used on pickups built between 1973 and 1987, poses any special hazard, critics claim it has caused more than 400 deaths. After one such fatal crash, an Atlanta jury had awarded a $104 million verdict against GM.

Hearing the worrisome reports, the Godbeys began taking small steps to reduce their risk. They pumped gas in only one of the dual fuel tanks, figuring that would halve the odds of being caught in a fiery blast. "If they hit us on her side," explains Ron, pointing to his wife, a slight woman with brown hair, "we thought there might not be an explosion."

Then the couple started driving the truck less, opting instead, whenever possible, for the 1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 that Regina had bought before she and Ron were married.

But finally, Ron recalls, "People at work started making snide comments." The Godbeys were so embarrassed to be spotted in their GM truck they parked it in the back of their driveway.

By then, they had received a letter from Sam Baxter, an attorney in the East Texas town of Marshall. Baxter was advising the Godbeys that they were among 645,000 Texans included in a class-action lawsuit against GM who were eligible to participate in a proposed settlement with the automaker.

GM was offering each of the pickup owners a $1,000 coupon, good--for a period of 15 months--toward the purchase of a new GM truck. In return, the truck owners would give up any further economic claims against the company. (They retained the right to sue for personal-injury damages after a crash.)

But that wasn't what the Godbeys wanted. They didn't want to buy a new truck. They simply wanted GM to make their beloved 1987 half-ton Silverado safe.

And the legal settlement--purportedly struck in the best interest of the truck owners--wasn't going to do that.

So five months later, after registering their unhappiness with the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based Ralph Nader group, Ronald and Regina Godbey became the plaintiffs in an extraordinary challenge to the Texas GM settlement.

That settlement is virtually identical to one proposed in federal court in Philadelphia, to cover 5.7 million GM truck owners in the 49 other states--with a single major difference.

The Philadelphia settlement would provide $9.5 million in legal fees for attorneys from 25 firms to split. The Texas deal would allow Baxter and a single co-counsel to divide $9.5 million.

The Godbeys and other objectors are represented by a pair of pugnacious Dallas plaintiff's lawyers, Steve Gardner and Marc Stanley, who are seeking to overturn the agreement struck by Baxter and GM. Gardner and Stanley say they are simply trying to get a better deal for the owners of GM trucks. Declares Gardner: "This was a blind sell-out of the class in favor of the class' attorneys."

Last July, the Dallas lawyers persuaded a state appeals court to throw out the settlement, which a district judge in Marshall with exceedingly close ties to Baxter had previously approved.

Both sides are now taking their arguments to the Texas Supreme Court, where the challenge is being treated as nothing less than a threat to the way all lawyers do business.

It has united GM and Baxter, fighting to protect their settlement. But it has also, incredibly, united the trade group of lawyers who sue corporations (the Texas Trial Lawyers Association) with the trade group for lawyers who make their living defending them (the Texas Association of Defense Counsel). Both have filed briefs defending the settlement.

Baxter says he got the best deal possible from GM, and that the Dallas attorneys are scheming to steal his case. Stanley and Gardner say that GM is desperate to protect the cheap deal it made with Baxter--and that Baxter is desperate to protect his seven-figure fee.

Whatever their motive, it is clear that Stanley and Gardner have riled the Texas legal establishment.

Eric Buether, a partner at the prominent Dallas firm of McKool Smith--which recently signed on Baxter as a partner--brands the two Dallas lawyers publicity-hungry "zealots" and "the worst kind of enemy."

"You cannot appease that kind of person," he declares. "It's a fight to the death. Someone is going to be on the floor before it's through."

In the beginning, no one doubted that Sam Baxter was the GM truck owners' friend.

Baxter launched his class-action suit in November 1992, after pairing up with Timothy Crowley, a Houston plaintiff's lawyer who has filed (and settled) five personal-injury claims against GM on behalf of people whose trucks had crashed.

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