Pickup Games

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

In their brief, the two groups attack the appeals court decision, saying it "presents litigants with the ultimate Catch-22.

"According to the Court of Appeals, GM cannot settle unless it agrees to fix the trucks despite its firmly held position that the trucks do not require fixing. The plaintiffs cannot settle unless they get the trucks fixed...If allowed to stand the decision by the Court of Appeals sounds the death knell for any type of noncash settlement of large, complex class actions."

Stanley contends the TTLA officers decided to submit the brief without properly polling the membership. At least one prominent member of the group has written the TTLA president to question his decision to file the brief in support of Baxter.

Texas Attorney General Dan Morales also sided with GM and Baxter, arguing, in his own brief: "If the discretion of the trial court in evaluating and approving class action settlements is usurped, the appellate court substituting its own judgment for that of the trial court, the class action as a procedure for resolving complex and costly litigation will be seriously impeded."

Stanley blames Morales' opposition on hefty political contributions from Baxter's old firm and law partners--more than $10,000 since 1992. (A Morales spolesman calls that claim "nonsense.")

Former assistant AG Crews, who attended major hearings in the case and closely followed the litigation, believes the Dallas lawyers' attack on the settlement is unfair.

"The plaintiff lawyers did a tremendous job," Crews contends. "There was no way to try this case. What everybody wants is a recall. What it comes down to is that.

"The problem is that they [the plaintiffs] didn't have much of a case. All the surveys they did showed there was no decrease in property values. They had a big evidentiary problem.

"I asked myself," Crews recalls, "am I going to be able to take this case and do a better job than Sam Baxter did?" He answers his own question. "GM is going to win."

Crews believes that Baxter's high-dollar fees unfairly triggered the flap--and the court of appeals decision. "The $9.5 million may be nasty and may offend people," contends Crews. "But that doesn't have anything to do with the case."

If the Texas Supreme Court refuses to review the matter, the Texarkana ruling will stand, scuttling the settlement and sending the entire matter back to Marshall. What will happen then is anybody's guess.

Stanley and Gardner say they will ask Judge Leggat to recuse herself, raising the prospect that the case will move elsewhere. They acknowledge they are eager to try a case against GM themselves. But if they get the chance, they say they will take a different approach, arguing that the truck owners lost value merely because the gas tanks need repair, not because the market value for them has dropped.

Meanwhile, Baxter has no assurance that he and GM will agree on anything--including his $9.5 million--if this settlement is thrown out. Says GM lawyer Jung: "Mr. Baxter is going to have to defend his own fee."

If Stanley and Gardner succeed in forcing Baxter's friend Leggat to the sidelines, the Marshall plaintiff's attorney faces the unfamiliar prospect of trying the case in another city.

During a two-hour interview, that topic was the only that drew an angry response.

Has he ever tried a case outside Marshall?
"Yes, I've tried a case outside of Marshall," he answered in a tone that hinted at irritation. "I've tried them in Palestine, Longview. I have even tried one," says Sam Baxter, "up in Denton County."

The charcoal-gray 1987 GM pickup is gone from the rear of the driveway at Ron and Regina Godbeys' home in southeast Dallas.

Instead, parked in the front driveway like a polished trophy, there is a vehicle the Godbeys drive without fear and with pride: a teal-green 1993 pickup. The Godbeys are so fond of their new truck they have embossed their first names on the doors--Ron's on the driver's side, Regina's on the passenger side.

The truck's manufacturer: General Motors.
In October 1993, the Godbeys traded in the debt-free truck with the troubling fuel tanks for a brand new GM model. It was a purchase that they could scarcely afford; they'll have $486 monthly car payments for five years.

And it is one they thought they'd never make--given their deep animosity toward GM.

Because of the purchase, Godbey compares himself unfavorably to GM's top executives, who have refused to take the side-saddle-tanked trucks off the road--or even acknowledge they pose a safety problem. "We're sicker than they are," says Ron. "We need to have our heads examined."

But there is something about the truck that drew the Godbeys to a GM vehicle yet again--something ephemeral and irrepressible--something that transcended their sense of outrage and anger and all rational consumer thought.

Explains Ron, with a wan smile: "We don't do Fords.

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