Nashville at law: 23 June 2008

Local attorney takes on Ford over vehicle fires... and more, in our weekly roundup of civil litigation in Nashville
[First published in The City Paper]

The big cases that plaintiff's lawyer Mark Chalos is pursuing right now are all about switches and ashes.

Chalos, a partner at the local office of the national litigation firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, has filed suit against Ford Motor Co. on behalf of Nicole and Duanisha Mathews, who narrowly escaped from a burning Goodlettsville home one morning in June of last year. The lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Circuit Court on June 13, claims that a 2000 Ford Expedition - parked in the home's garage with its engine off - started the fire.

A faulty switch in the cruise-control mechanism set off that fire, the complaint asserts. And it says Ford knew the switches it had installed in millions of cars were dangerous but failed to correct the problem. It lays out in extensive detail what Ford's engineers supposedly knew and when they knew it regarding the tendency of the switches, manufactured by Texas Instruments Inc., to generate heat as they corrode.

In two other cases Chalos has brought against Ford, fires blamed on the switches caused fatalities. A 76-year-old man in San Antonio and a 4-year-old boy in Atlanta each died in house fires that started in parked Fords. More than 100 lawsuits over the switch fault have been filed in Texas alone, and Chalos was recently named to the plaintiffs' steering committee as a judge consolidated those cases.

In a switch-related case brought against Ford by other lawyers in Laurens County, South Carolina, a jury last year awarded the plaintiffs $3.59 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Ford has issued a total of six recalls related to the switch fault since 1999, on roughly 10.4 million vehicles. Taken together, they amount to the largest recall for a single vehicle problem in American automotive history. Yet Chalos accuses the company of taking only half-measures.

"They shuck and jive and blame other people instead of fixing the problem," Chalos said. He accused Ford of "acting in a very irresponsible way" as it has faced economic pressures in recent years. "They put their financial self-interest above the lives of their customers," Chalos claimed.

Marcey Evans, corporate news manager for Ford, said last week that having just received the lawsuit, "Ford has not been able to perform even the most cursory investigation of the allegations contained in the complaint." She said it would be "inappropriate for us to provide any comment regarding this lawsuit until the allegations have been thoroughly investigated and Ford has consulted with counsel."

Other cases of note (June 11-18)

Tennessee Court of Appeals:

Underwood Repair Service Inc. v. Billy R. Dean, Peggy L. Dean, and Dean LLP. Opinion filed June 18. Good fences don't always make good neighbors. Underwood and the Deans, who have neighboring businesses in Antioch, went to court in a dispute over who owns a strip of land between their properties. It has been fenced for many years in a way that suggests it is Underwood's land, but the Deans say it belongs to them. Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled that Underwood had failed to make a case for its ownership through "adverse possession," the legal concept that a party occupying a piece of land for a long time without anyone else complaining eventually becomes the rightful owner of that land.

The appeals court reverses Bonnyman, saying Underwood deserves a chance to have the adverse possession argument considered on its merits. Opinion by Special Judge Robert W. Wedemeyer. Underwood's attorneys: T. Holland McKinnie and Mark M. Mizell, of Perry Moore McKinnie PLC in Franklin. The Deans' attorney: Jonathan C. Stewart, Nashville.

United States District Court:

Juan Ibarra v. Kenneth Barrett and Rutherford County Sheriff's Department. Case closed June 12. Pulled over by Rutherford County Deputy Sheriif Kenneth Barrett on I-24 on November 10, 2004, Ibarra was found to have $9,400 in cash on him. Suspecting it was drug money, but without finding any evidence to that effect, Barrett and another deputy seized all but $20 of it. After an administrative law judge ordered the funds returned to him, the Sheriff's Department failed to do so for six months, and Ibarra sued.

Several issues in the case were eventually settled, and in October 2007, Ibarra's remaining civil rights claim went to trial. The jury found in his favor, but it awarded only $2,000 in actual damages and no punitive damages.

Ibarra's attorneys, James S. Higgins and Jonathan A. Street of Higgins, Himmelberg & Piliponis in Nashville, then asked Judge Aleta A. Trauger to award them attorney's fees and costs. Dismissing the county's argument that fees were unwarranted, Trauger ruled on June 12 that Higgins and Street were entitled to $127,503 in attorney's fees and $2,957 in costs.

David Randall Mantooth of Leitner, Williams, Dooley, and Napolitan PLLC in Nashville represented the defendants.

Davidson County Chancery Court:

Bonnie Lynn Bramlett v. EMI Music Publishing. Filed June 11. Playing blues-tinged rock, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends produced several hits in the years before singer Bonnie Bramlett and husband Delaney Bramlett divorced in 1973. For some time afterward, Bonnie says, EMI paid her royalties to Delaney in error. She seeks an accounting of those funds. Plaintiff's attorney: Music Row lawyer Norman Gillis.

Davidson County Circuit Court:

Becky Priest v. CCB 5 Inc., Amy Trenna Barnes, Debra Johnson and Renae Truex. Filed June 16. Just as the all-female band Cowboy Crush was about to release a single on Curb/Asylum Records, three band members and the band's manager ousted singer Becky Priest. She claims that doing so violated her rights as a shareholder in CCB 5, the band's holding company, and she asks for restitution. Plaintiff's attorney: LaShawn A. Williams of Nashville.

Gregg White v. Towne Park Corp. and Opryland Hotel Nashville LLC d/b/a Opryland Hotel and Convention Center. Filed June 13. White claims that while employed by Towne Park as a valet at the Opryland Hotel, he endured months of sexual harassment from a man he identifies as the hotel's "supervisor of security." The conduct included "frequent verbal sexual advances, sexually suggestive gestures and crude comments," as well as "offensive touching" — and he says that last part was captured on security video. Plaintiff's attorney: Donald D. Zuccarello of Nashville.

Shelter Insurance Company, as subrogee of Rick Web v. Howard Caughron, Dr. Joe F. Bryant, Artists Building Partners LP, Nashville Electric Service, Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Johnson Roofing Company, Denny Electrical Company, Intersouth Construction Company One LLC, Artist Building Partners, United Artist Building Partners, Intersouth Realtors LLC. Also: Martin Eugene Breeden, Lisa McDonald Unge, James Cristaldi et al. v. Caughron, Bryant et al. These separate lawsuits arise from the fire that damaged Music Row's United Artists Tower on June 13, 2005. They claim that one of the defendants was responsible for throwing the 440-volt switch that caused the fire to break out in an electrical room, and that defective wiring, roof leakage and other faults compounded the damage.