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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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