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.

They filed the suit on behalf of all Texans who owned one of the targeted GM trucks at the time of the suit. The only named plaintiff was Tommy Dollar, a Marshall police officer.

As defendants, Baxter listed both GM and a Marshall car dealership--a maneuver that would help the East Texas lawyer keep the case in his backyard. GM filed papers anyway to move the case to federal court.

After a shift to a federal court in Texas, the suit would likely have ended up in Philadelphia, consolidated with the cases of the truck owners from the 49 other states.

But Baxter successfully argued to keep his lawsuit in Marshall, where he has for years shrewdly exploited an extraordinary home-field advantage.

Baxter is a tall, hefty 49-year old with a receding hairline and a mild, pleasing manner. Along with his wire-rimmed glasses, he usually wears a relaxed smile.

But for all his apparent docility, Baxter is the sort of lawyer who could serve as a poster boy for the cause of tort reform. A former state judge and Harrison County district attorney, Baxter has used decades-old relationships in the East Texas town of 55,000 to build a national practice that rakes in millions. He has helped earn Marshall a reputation as an exceedingly profitable place to sue giant corporations--with the help of state laws, now under legislative scrutiny, that let plaintiffs' lawyers pick their venue.

"I hope people don't use this article as one of the reasons for venue reform," Baxter fretted during an interview. "I certainly wouldn't want it to be for fodder, for people saying all these terrible things happen to corporations in Marshall."

Baxter paused a moment, then added: "GM liked Marshall."
Since leaving the bench in 1988, Baxter's list of victims includes insurance giant Crum & Forster, hit with a $71 million jury verdict; and Xerox, with which he negotiated a $225 million settlement. He is now specializing in highly sophisticated and technical class-action consumer claims. Baxter has multimillion-dollar suits pending in Marshall courts against Microsoft Corp., and McCaw Communications.

Baxter gets a slice of many profitable cases that originate with plaintiff's lawyers in Houston and Dallas. His big-city brethren are eager to take their cases before Marshall's generous juries. So they establish cause to file suit there (it usually requires nothing more than locating a Marshall distributor of the targeted product), offer Baxter a piece of the deal, and watch the millions roll in.

McKool Smith, a high-profile Dallas firm that retained Baxter as co-counsel in the cases against Xerox and Microsoft, has developed such a tight relationship with the East Texas native that the firm last month made him a full-fledged partner--operating out of its new Marshall office.

Baxter had been practicing at Marshall's oldest firm, the five-attorney Jones, Jones & Curry, home to Franklin Jones, Jr., a major contributor to Democratic political campaigns.

Baxter, a native of Carthage, 20 miles south of Marshall, has carefully cultivated the hometown advantage. His ties with the county's only state district judge, Bonnie Leggat, who presided over the GM case, go back 15 years.

Leggat even has a child named Sam. "She denies to the world that the child is named after me," Baxter protests. (The judge did not return calls to her office for this story.)

"I guess it's fair to say we are friends," Baxter says, with characteristic understatement. But she rules against him as often as not, he contends. "She is very friendly and outgoing and friends with lots of lawyers in this town."

In fact, Leggat joined the law firm that Baxter left behind when he joined the Harrison County district attorney's office in 1971. After Baxter won election as DA, he tapped Leggat as his assistant. In 1985, Texas Governor Mark White appointed Baxter as Harrison County district judge--and named Leggat to succeed him as DA. Three years later, after winning the Democratic primary, Baxter decided against running for reelection in November; Leggat replaced him on the ballot.

Baxter also enjoys a familiarity with Marshall jurors, whether in state or federal court.

In addition to his 20 years in public office, he served for a decade as the director of Marshall's Dixie League, the local equivalent of Little League. As a result, Baxter has a connection to almost every prospective juror. He has either prosecuted their cousins, coached their sons, or sat on the bench during their divorce proceedings. Says former Harrison County Judge Don Stokes: "Very few people wouldn't know Sam Baxter."

Several years ago, Baxter stirred small-town chatter when he began dating the woman who ultimately became his third wife while still married to his second wife. But his status in the community limited the damage. "It caused a certain amount of grief," recalls Gail Beil, a reporter at the Marshall News Messenger. "But because he is Sam Baxter, he can do that."

Sam Baxter's successful effort to keep the case of the Texas truck owners separate appears to have benefited only Baxter--and his Houston co-counsel, Crowley.

On the same day GM announced its proposed settlement with Texas truck owners, it also unveiled the exact same deal for those in the 49 other states, represented in the federal court in Philadelphia. Despite all Baxter's hometown influence, he had extracted nothing extra from GM--except a vastly more lucrative fee for the lawyers. Each firm in the Philadelphia case was to pocket an average of $380,000; Baxter's deal would provide him and Crowley with $4.75 million apiece.

"Good things happen to good people," jokes Baxter.
He then makes a more serious attempt to justify his fee. "I think the big difference was I started talking to the GM lawyers earlier than the [25 firms in Philadelphia]," he explains. "I don't want to say that we were the lead lawyers. But we started the dialogue about the discovery mode"--how the two sides would pursue pretrial activities.

About the $1,000 coupons, Baxter is unequivocal: it represents the best deal he could muster under difficult circumstances. "The one reason we got anything in that case," he declares, "is because we worked a miracle."

Baxter says his case collapsed when he discovered he could prove no economic damage to the GM truck-owners. Despite all the bad press GM received, the besieged pick-ups never stopped fetching top dollar in the used-car market, says Baxter. "Our theory was the publicity was going to affect the price. We were sitting there every month looking at the blue books and waiting. But people like those trucks. They like those big gas tanks that you don't have to fill up so often."

Without proof of economic harm, Baxter contends, GM wasn't going to have to pay anything. "Clearly the best thing that could happen in this lawsuit would be, under our theory, for General Motors to give each truck owner in the State of Texas a brand new truck, take their truck off the road, and crush it," Baxter said in court during an October 1993 hearing. "Now, that is the very best that we could ever hope for.

"But," Baxter declared, "that is not obtainable. It is not obtainable through a jury finding. It is not obtainable through a court order. And unfortunately, we could not talk General Motors into it. They keep talking about bankruptcy. It simply was not a viable deal."

It's true that GM has won series of victories in its defense of the side-saddle pickup fuel tanks. The first came after the NBC newsmagazine "Dateline" broadcast a report including film of the truck blowing up upon impact in a simulated crash. GM discovered in court that the NBC crew had attached rockets to the fuel tanks. The revelation brought an embarrassing public apology from NBC--and triggered the resignation of NBC News President Michael Gartner.

In June 1994, GM persuaded an appeals court in Georgia to overturn the $104 million Atlanta personal-injury verdict.

And in December, the automaker convinced the U.S. Department of Transportation to cancel any recall plans. In a settlement with the agency, GM agreed to spend $51 million over five years on vehicle-safety programs, including $4 million for 200,000 child car seats for impoverished families.

It was a tiny price for a company with $140 billion in annual revenues--especially compared to the projected cost of recalling all the disputed GM trucks.

Only the motion to object, filed in the name of the Godbeys and one other truck owner, would buck the giant automaker's winning streak.

The Godbeys had contacted the Center for Auto Safety in response to a suggestion from WFAA reporter Alan Berg, who had begun reporting the pickups' problems. The couple had previously called GM headquarters in Detroit to complain, but received no response.

In July 1993, the Godbeys found the letter from Sam Baxter in their mail. It detailed the $1,000 coupon offer, good only for the purchase of a new truck during a 15-month period--and worth only $500 if sold to someone else.

"I just thought it was ridiculous," recalls Ron Godbey. "What they were offering was worth nothing." The insurance salesman fired back a letter to the Marshall courts, stating that he wanted to register as an objector to the proposed settlement.

Out of 645,000 Texas truck owners identified in the GM litigation, just 582--including the Godbeys--wrote to formally object. The cities of Dallas and Austin, municipalities with hundreds of the controversial GM trucks in their fleet, were among the objectors.

The Godbeys did not pay much attention to the two paragraphs at the bottom of the fifth page of Baxter's letter that described attorney's fees. "If the Court approves the settlement of the case," the letter vaguely explained, "the Court will determine an award of attorneys' fees and reimbursement of costs and expenses, which would be paid solely by General Motors and would not reduce directly or indirectly any of the Settlement's benefits to Class members."

Baxter made no mention of the $9.5 million fee he and his co-counsel were to share. He later argued in court that he could not list an exact figure because at the time of the settlement announcement, GM had not yet formally agreed to the amount.

In September 1993, the Godbeys received a phone call from Steve Gardner. He told the couple that he had gotten their names from the Center for Auto Safety, and he wanted to represent them as objectors to the settlement in the Marshall court.

Though the Godbeys didn't know it, their caller was one of the best-known attorneys in Texas. A native Texan, Gardner had served for six years as an assistant Texas attorney general, charged with handling high-profile consumer-protection cases.

In that role, Gardner had battled cereal-maker Kellogg; the cable TV firm Tele-Communications, Inc; TRW, one of the nation's largest credit bureaus, and even General Motors, which he accused of using trumped-up claims to sell its Cadillacs.

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.

Leggat refused to permit the Dallas lawyers to question Baxter or the GM lawyers under oath about the settlement. "We would like to talk with them about what was on the table, what was rejected, what was offered, how vigorously they fought," Stanley told the judge. It got him nowhere.

Gardner offered this view of Baxter's proposed settlement: "The only way to get rid of a car, as class counsel has told them, is to...go back to the folks that sold them the dangerous pickup to start with and pay them some more money that they are not ready to pay and in many instances that they simply cannot afford."

At times, Judge Leggat even joined in with Baxter to suggest the Dallas lawyers had pecuniary motives. "Mr. Stanley," she asked at one point from the bench, "isn't it true--you say you filed this pro bono, but you have also filed on behalf of all those that you are representing pro bono, a class action in Dallas, have you not?"

Lawyers for the cities of Dallas and Austin were also opposing the settlement at the September hearing. Dallas has about 300 GM trucks in its fleets, Austin about 190. For the cities, GM's $1,000 coupons were of limited value, particularly since the discounts were only valid for 15 months. That was too short a time, the city attorneys told the court, for any fleet owner to replace all the trucks and thus take full advantage of the coupons.

Ron Stutes, an assistant city attorney for the city of Dallas, expressed dismay at Baxter's fees. "Imagine if your lawyer came to you and said, 'I negotiated the best I could for you. You get nothing. I get $9 million dollars.' Would you feel fairly treated?

"I don't think so."
Judge Leggat took just four working days to give her blessing to the Baxter-GM agreement--$9.5 million in attorney fees and all.

It was then, as they prepared to appeal Leggat's ruling, that Stanley and Gardner contend the "hometowning" in Marshall really commenced.

Shortly after Leggat's ruling, Baxter, the Dallas lawyers, and a Marshall court reporter got into a major squabble over how large a bond the objectors had to buy to cover the copying costs for appealing the judge's decision.

The court reporter insisted the Dallas lawyers needed $38,000 to cover the copying charges for appeal--nearly 40 times the amount the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure normally require.

Stanley and Gardner argued that Baxter and Crowley had stuffed 74,000 pages of exhibits into the court record just hours before the final settlement hearing--just to ratchet up the costs of appeal. The Dallas lawyers claimed the court reporter was working on Baxter's behalf to make an appeal prohibitively expensive--a charge she denied.

"If you're going to play with the big boys," the court reporter told Texas Lawyer, which closely covered the conflict, "you'd better bring your wallet."

The Dallas lawyers wanted the charge cut to $965; Judge Leggat would only reduce it to $23,000. Stanley and Gardner took the matter to the Texarkana court of appeals. On March 9, they cut the bond to $7,500.

But the prospect of high appeal costs had already thinned the ranks of objectors. The city of Dallas pulled out of the case in January 1994. Austin followed two months later.

Stanley contends the cities pulled out partly because the Dallas law firm of Strasburger & Price, representing GM, lobbied councilmembers of both cities.

Dallas assistant city attorney Stutes says he advised his council to drop out because he didn't expect the bond to be reduced. Concedes Stutes: "I incorrectly judged the chance of winning."

That misjudgment became apparent in June, when the Texarkana appeals court overturned Judge Leggat, throwing out the Baxter-GM settlement.

The appeals court embraced Gardner and Stanley's position that Baxter had struck a lousy deal for owners of the GM trucks. "It is questionable whether a certificate that requires a person to spend from $7,000 to $33,000 for a discretionary, nonessential purchase in order to receive a $1,000 discount on that purchase has any value at all," the order stated.

The panel also cited Baxter's failure to disclose his fee in the settlement notice he sent to Texas truck owners. "We find that the notice is deficient and that it should have been disclosed to the class members in clear and certain terms the amount of the attorneys' fees agreed to or proposed as part of the settlement," the order stated. "Attorneys' fees, even though they may not be technically deducted from the amount paid to the litigants, represent an integral part of the overall amount that the settling party is willing to pay, and as such, they have a direct effect on the net amount that will ultimately be paid to the litigants."

As expected, Baxter and GM--temporarily allies--have asked the Texas Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court decision.

They have found support in a surprisingly wide variety of legal circles: whatever side of the fence they're on, it seems, lawyers don't like other lawyers meddling in their negotiations with an opposing party.

For only the second time ever, the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and the Texas Association of Defense Counsel have filed a joint brief in the appeal. They are backing GM and Baxter. Strasburger & Price attorney Michael Jung, whose firm represents GM, hopefully suggests it may prove influential. "When you get groups of lawyers who are usually battling each other on the same side," he says, "that catches the court's attention."

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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