ILNews

District Court upholds jury award against GM

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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A U.S. District judge chastised General Motors for the way the company treated its salaried employees who gave up being under union protection and later wanted to rejoin the union as hourly workers. In an opinion released Aug. 15, Judge David Hamilton of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division, upheld a $3.1 jury award against GM for promissory estoppel claims, finding the plaintiffs had provided sufficient evidence to prove their Sixth Amendment claim against the company.

Judge Hamilton ruled on GM's motions for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial in Harold Burton, et al. v. General Motors Corporation, No. 1:95-CV-1054-DFH-TAB, and denied both motions. The District Court also denied GM's motion to strike the plaintiffs' demand for a jury trial.

The plaintiffs were five employees at the Allison Engine Division of GM who originally worked in hourly, union-protected positions and were recruited by GM to take jobs as first-line supervisors. As supervisors, they were no longer organized under the union and were told by GM they could return to the hourly, unionized positions if they desired. However, once GM decided to sell Allison Engine, it froze transfers back to the union positions without telling supervisors.

After more than 10 years of litigation to decide whether state or federal laws applied to the plaintiffs' claims, their Sixth Amendment complaint for promissory estoppel and fraud was allowed to proceed to a jury trial in 2008. The jury found the plaintiffs proved their promissory estoppel claims, but not the fraud claims, and awarded the plaintiffs more than $3 million.

GM moved for a judgment as a matter of law, arguing multiple errors were made with regard to the plaintiffs' promissory estoppel claims and the jury award of damages was improper. GM also sought a new trial on those grounds.

Judge Hamilton denied GM's motions, finding the plaintiffs provided ample evidence to show GM planned to sell Allison Engine and deceptively prevented the plaintiffs from returning to their hourly positions before the sale.

"Plaintiffs' evidence was powerful and compelling. General Motors' defenses were weak attempts to evade responsibility for the promises it had made to some of its best and most important employees to persuade them to give up the security and benefits they had had under the union's protection," wrote Judge Hamilton. "To the extent the company has a conscience, General Motors and its management should be ashamed of the way they treated these employees."
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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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