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Home Depot answers lawsuit

By Ed Brock

Home Depot and the man accused of dropping a dryer that caused a fatal accident on I-75 have answered a lawsuit filed by the family of the Atlanta man who was killed in the accident.

Michael T. Hall, 43, was killed on March 8 when he swerved to avoid the dryer in I-75's northbound lanes near Forest Parkway while driving home in his 1996 Isuzu Rodeo from his sons' Little League baseball game in McDonough. The Rodeo rolled over several times in the accident but Hall's two sons, 9-year-old Michael and 6-year-old Marcus, were not badly injured.

In April Hall's widow Sabrina Hall filed the lawsuit against Jose Luna Gonzalez, the Hapeville man who bought the dryer that fell from his truck, Home Depot that is the company that sold the dryer and Isuzu Motors America, Isuzu Motors Inc. and Subaru-Isuzu Automotive Inc.

Short of admitting that he bought the dryer and that it fell out of his truck, and that he is a citizen of Georgia and subject to the jurisdiction of the court, in his answer Gonzalez denies any negligence in the case. Gonzalez also faces criminal charges of in the case, misdemeanor vehicular homicide and failure to secure a load.

Along with contesting the Halls' right to seek punitive damage against the company, Home Depot denies in its answer all liability in the incident. The lawsuit alleges that Home Depot was negligent because it did not help Gonzalez to secure the dryer in his pickup truck or warn him of the dangers the dryer could cause if it fell out of the truck.

The answers were pretty standard, said the Halls' attorney Quinton Seay.

Aspects of the lawsuit were interesting, said Perry Binder, an assistant professor of legal studies at Georgia State University's Robinson College of Business. He was especially interested in one of the allegations against Isuzu.

In general the suit alleges that a design failure in Hall's Isuzu Rodeo caused it to roll when he tried to avoid the dryer. It also alleges that Isuzu "discarded documents and engineering data regarding the Trooper to avoid additional liability in United States courts."

"Isuzu, if these allegations are true, faces enormous liability," Binder said. "Based on my experience jurors would be more sympathetic to a company that presents damaging documents than to a company that destroyed documents."

Binder compared the allegation to those made against the Arthur Anderson auditing firm in the Enron case.

In its answer Isuzu Motors America, Inc. denies the allegation. Seay said the allegation is "a known fact" and said that in previous, similar litigation Isuzu failed to provide the documents, documents that it is reasonable to believe Isuzu should have because other car companies keep such research records.

As for the impact the case would have on Home Depot, Binder said much of that depends on the information that is revealed in the discovery phase of the trial on the number of similar accidents that occurred at Home Depots around the state and nation.

"That's the largest question from the consumer's standpoint," Binder said.

Getting those statistics will be challenging, Binder said, and Seay also said he expects "a lot of litigation" in their pursuit of that information.

"Home Depot historically guards its injuries statistics very closely," Binder said.

Binder predicted that Home Depot would object to releasing the information on the basis that the statistics are a protected trade secret, a tactic he said the company has taken in a Cobb County lawsuit regarding another issue.

Other information that should be sought in the discovery phase, according to Binder, is the level of training Home Depot employees receive on loading and securing appliances, whether they warn the general public about the dangers of transporting heavy appliances and whether a Home Depot employee helped Gonzales load the dryer into his truck.

Seay said there are no dates set yet for hearings in the lawsuit, which is filed in State Court of Fulton County.