Spoliation Spoils the Broth at Toyota?

J0438712 This one is a little quirky because, based on my research, I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the plaintiff, however, it does well to illustrate how a case can become a P.R. nightmare even before the defendant files an answer.

In Biller v. Toyota Motor Corp., 2:09-cv-5429, U.S.
District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles) (warning: link opens a 117-page pdf), plaintiff Biller (formerly an attorney for Toyota) asserts that defendant Toyota concealed and destroyed evidence critical to hundreds of rollover cases.  Toyota has motioned to seal the case, citing violation of attorney/client privilege.

Oh boy.  I hated these hypothetical questions in law school.  When may an attorney in a position of confidentiality, break privilege to expose wrongdoing?  What about his corporate duties?  Not easy to discern when attorney and manager are one-and-the-same.  It depends what jurisdiction you're in and which code must be followed.  We used to call it the "climb-the-ladder" obligation.  Bring your concerns to the appropriate executives and hope they'll do the right thing.  You also have to look to who is being damaged and the level and extent of that damage.

Who, exactly, may an attorney speak with when the very act of revealing information – even within the company itself and ostensibly for a proper purpose – may still violate privilege?

This is the kind of issue that could result in a treatise that goes on for page after page, but to distill it down to basics, attorneys are officers of the court first – not the client; their duty of loyalty is clear.  What's not so clear; when does a violation cross the threshold that allows the attorney to go outside of privilege?

We won't know more details about this for a while, but it's one to watch.  My immediate thoughts are, 1) Plaintiff had better have some convincing evidence to back up his claims and 2) Toyota had better hope he doesn't.

Two things are clear.  Even if the claims are proven false, Toyota is already the loser, and as sure as I'm sitting here, this will appear as a question on the California Bar exam in 2012 (just kidding; I assume my position on the Executive Committee in about 10 days, so I don't want anyone jumping to the conclusion that I would ever know what will be on the exams).

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someonePrint this page