Thursday, July 16, 2015
Haslam Ordered to Testify in Pilot Suit
By Walter F. Roche Jr.
A federal magistrate has ruled that Pilot Flying J's top executive, James A. Haslam, must appear for a deposition later this month and answer questions about his knowledge of a scheme to cheat truckers out of millions of dollars in promised rebates.
The order by U.S. Magistrate J. Gregory Wehrman is but one of several major developments in a handful of remaining lawsuits stemming from the rebate fraud charges that followed an FBI raid on the truck stop firm's Knoxville headquarters over two years ago.
In related action three of the four remaining cases against Pilot have been dismissed from federal court due to a lack of jurisdiction. The dismissals came only after Pilot's lawyers filed papers contending they had just discovered that Pilot "has had a member who is a citizens of Ohio and Alabama at all relevant times."
That discovery triggered a provision in federal law that barred federal courts from hearing suits brought by FST Express, HB Logistics and Dick Lavy Trucking, firms located in Alabama and Ohio.
Those three suits will now be pursued in state courts, according to attorneys familiar with the cases.
One suit against Pilot filed by Wright Transportation remains in federal court in Kentucky, but it too could be shifted to state court or to another federal court.
The civil action comes as 10 former Pilot executives are waiting sentencing after entering guilty pleas to mail and wire fraud charges stemming from the rebate fraud investigation. U.S. Justice Department officials have indicated the probe is continuing.
The deposition order against Haslam calls for the Cleveland Browns owner to appear for questioning on July 29 by Wright Transportation attorney Stephen Tunstall.
Lawyers for Haslam already have filed a motion to overturn Wehrman's order or to have any questioning limited.
Haslam had asked for a protective order to block the deposition charging that he had no personal knowledge of the rebate shaving scheme.
"Though Haslam disclaims having knowledge of the allegations made by Wright Transportation, a witness ordinarily cannot escape examination by denying knowledge of any relevant facts, since the party seeking to take the deposition is entitled to test the witness's lack of knowledge," Wehrman ruled.
He also concluded that Haslam had failed to show what specific harm he would suffer if subjected to questioning.
Haslam's lawyers have filed an appeal seeking to overturn the order stating the deposition "will impose siginificant costs and undue burden."
The motion repeats the claim that Haslam has no personal knowledge of Wright's agreement with Pilot and that he had never even heard of the company until the suit was filed.
"Mr. Haslam had nothing to do with plaintiff's contract with Pilot, in fact he had nothing to do with plaintiff at all," the 24-page appeal states. "The magistrate's order was clearly erroneous," the motion states.
The ruling to dismiss the cases filed by FST Express, HB Logistics and Dick Lavy Trucking followed the disclosure by Pilot's attorneys of the belated discovery that the firm had ties to both Alabama and Ohio.
At several earlier points in the litigation, Pilot's attorneys had insisted the opposite was the case.
The disclosure triggered a demand by plaintiffs in the case that sanctions be imposed against Pilot.
"Pilot likely knew long ago that the court lacked diversity jurisdiction," they charged.
"Pilot, however," the truck stop firm's lawyers replied," did not have complete information until last week when "one of Pilot's minority members revealed for the first time that one of its sub sub members was a Ohio citizen."
U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar, the judge who has been presiding over the cases, is expected to rule later this summer on whether sanctions should be imposed on Pilot and whether the Wright suit will remain in his court or be sent to another federal court or a state court.
Aubrey Harwell, a Nashville attorney representing Pilot, said Thursday his client would prefer that the case remain where it is, before Thapar. Wright's attorneys have sought its dismissal.