MANHATTAN (CN) - When former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas oversaw an internal probe of a General Motors product recall, the resulting 325-page report sent to Congress, the Department of Justice and others laid bare the ignition-switch defects that prompted dozens of class actions.
For discovery proceedings in the multidistrict litigation, GM already produced the now-public report and the documents cited in it, but the company has refused to disclose the notes and memos from the Valukas investigation held by his firm of Jenner & Block LLP.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman agreed Thursday that GM does not need to hand over those protected communications.
Jenner & Block's interview team told the employees that the interviews were confidential and designed to help GM request legal advice, Furman explained.
Acknowledging that the "ruling deprives plaintiffs of material that might be helpful in the preparation of their cases," Furman added that his decision "'puts [plaintiffs] in no worse position than if the communications had never taken place' ... as plaintiffs themselves are free to question the witnesses who were interviewed by the Valukas team."
GM must produce a list of all of the interviewed witnesses within two weeks, according to the 22-page opinion.
"Moreover, in the memorable words of Justice Robert Jackson, '[d]iscovery was hardly intended to enable a learned profession to perform its functions... on wits borrowed from the adversary,'" Furman wrote. "And, in the final analysis, the cost of withholding the materials is outweighed by the benefits to society of "encourag[ing] 'full and frank communication between attorneys and their clients and thereby promot[ing] broader public interests in the observance of law and the administration of justice.'"
Lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to comment.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas sparked the multidistrict litigation in early 2014 by suing GM in California, alleging that ignition-switch, power-steering, airbag, and brake-light defects increased the risk of injuries and death to drivers and passengers.
The district attorney estimated that the defect affected more than 1.5 million GM vehicles.
At least 35 people have died as a result of the defect, though an independent report commissioned by Center for Auto Safety says the death toll could be as high as 300.
GM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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