Pickup Games

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

Blunt, voluble, and often profane, Gardner courted reporters and often used the press as a weapon, lambasting corporations--or other government agencies--in the media. ("I'm glad that [DOT Secretary Frederico] Pena candy-assed in advance," Gardner remarked on one occasion.) His cases and confrontational style drew extraordinary personal attention--including profiles in Fortune and the Wall Street Journal, as well as appearances on "Nightline." Invariably, Gardner came across as an irrepressible consumer-protection cop.

Texas Attorney General Dan Morales found him repressible, however; he parted ways with Gardner in 1991. Morales and Gardner didn't give reasons for the departure at the time. But the assistant's high profile and grating ways seemed to have become irksome.

Out of public office, Gardner labored to retain his role as a consumer-protection advocate. In class-action claims against retailer Toys 'R' US and Wells Fargo Bank, Gardner hooked up with Marc Stanley and his partner, Roger Mandel; they would become his co-counsel in the GM objectors case.

Stanley, a Dallas plaintiff's lawyer specializing in class-action suits, is also familiar with the realm of media and politics. He is a major campaign contributor to Democrats, and his legal assistant served as Dallas County coordinator for Ann Richards' unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

Even more than Gardner, Stanley insists that his opposition to the proposed GM settlement is a selfless burden he has undertaken to protect the integrity and proper purposes of the plaintiff's bar. "We have over $150,000 in this and expect to recover no money," Stanley says. "It is not financial. It's just that it is a bad deal for plaintiff lawyers. We believe in class actions. This [the proposed GM settlement] is selling out a class."

Dallas lawyer Alan Trust, a former partner of Stanley, accepts the claim of altruism. "People will level the assertion that it's purely for publicity," Trust says. "But if he believes in a cause, he will work for a cause."

Even Trust, however, doesn't buy the notion that Stanley can clean up the public's perception of lawyers by attacking Baxter's deal. "It's kind of hard," he says, "to make lawyers much worse in the public's eye."

"I don't know why it has to be this nasty," declares Joe Crews.
Crews is a former Texas assistant attorney general who has followed the GMcase closely for the state. He is astonished by the vitriol that Baxter and his Dallas opponents have already spewn.

In court and to anyone who will listen, the Dallas lawyers have accused Baxter of doing virtually no work to earn his half of the $9.5 million fee. Roger Mandel, a partner in Stanley's office, made that point before Judge Leggat in Marshall. "They did one written discovery request. They went up to Ann Arbor [site of a GM's documents] and had a bunch of documents sent down. They did no depositions. This whole case was spent by these people negotiating a settlement and for that they want $9.5 million."

To substantiate his point, Mandel recalled a visit to Baxter's document room, where his staff was storing notebooks GM had provided. "Judge, we went to their office yesterday to look at their notebooks that they got from GM. These things [have] never been touched. We lift up the notebooks and the little holes that you punch to make the three holes fall out of them, these things had never been opened up."

Baxter responds that the Dallas lawyers spent 30 minutes in the documents room--not enough time to judge anything. He says they never went to Houston to see the additional GM documents that his co-counsel Crowley kept. When asked about the paper holes falling out of the notebooks, Crowley has a different response than his co-counsel. He says the documents in the Marshall office were only copies of paperwork he and Baxter had already studied.

Baxter contends the two Dallas lawyers are scheming to somehow hijack his case. They want, Baxter argued, "to somehow scoop up this class and take it to Dallas and represent [the truck owners] there." He notes that Gardner and Stanley have filed a class-action case in Dallas federal court, seeking to represent truck owners who bought a used GM pickup with the side-saddle tanks after Baxter filed in 1992--and are therefore excluded from the proposed Marshall settlement.

If the Dallas lawyers succeeded in moving the whole matter to their own bailiwick, they very well might be the lucky ones with $9.5 million. Gardner and Stanley have done no discovery on their own Dallas case, Baxter says. Instead, they have focused their sights on his much larger class of truck owners.

"Where are you boys from?" the Harrison County district clerk inquired as Gardner, Stanley, and Mandel walked into the district courthouse in Marshall on October 27, 1993.

The Dallas crowd was not well-received.
"We were told by the guy in the donut shop that Marshall was a tight town," Gardner recalls.

News Messenger reporter Beil makes no bones about her sentiments. She refers to the opponents to the GM settlement as "those ill-behaved, rude Dallas lawyers." Huffs Beil: "This is a genteel place. Maybe that's the way they do things in Dallas."

The Dallas lawyers went to Marshall for the October 1993 hearing that Judge Leggat had scheduled to consider the proposed settlement. About 75 truck owners showed up, crowding the courtroom. Leggat parked the Dallas lawyers in the jury box; Baxter and GM sat at the usual attorneys' table, directly in front of the judge.

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