In this file photo, Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors, is shown at the reveals of the new 2021 Chevrolet Suburban and 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe SUVs at Little Caesars Arena on December 10, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (copy)

Mary Barra, chairperson and CEO of General Motors, is seen here.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed against General Motors, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled the company’s CEO isn’t exempt from being deposed in the case by virtue of her position.

The suit stems from a November 2014 fatal crash in Paulding County which killed Glenda Marie Buchanan. Her husband, Robert Randall Buchanan, alleged the single-vehicle crash of the Chevrolet Trailblazer stemmed from a defect in the car’s steering system.

Buchanan and his attorneys, filing the lawsuit in Cobb County, sought a deposition from GM CEO Mary Barra. The request was made because of statements Barra had made before Congress and elsewhere about the company’s internal investigation of the steering system.

Though no action was taken as a result of that investigation, a 2021 Reuters report found documentation of “high levels of warranty claims and a manufacturing flaw” with the steering system. Buchanan’s was the only death allegedly connected to the issue, Reuters said.

Cobb State Court Judge Carl Bowers ruled in 2020 that Barra could be compelled to testify, according to Lance Cooper, one of Buchanan’s attorneys. The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, and GM brought the case before the Supreme Court.

GM premised its argument to the high court on a so-called “apex doctrine,” which seeks to limit the deposition of high-level executives in circumstances including where similar testimony could be obtained through other channels.

The argument, in effect, seeks to shift the burden of proof for whether an executive should be deposed to the plaintiff, rather than the company.

Joining the automaker as amici curiae — “friends of the court” with an interest in its ruling — were a slate of business interests. Those included UPS, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, Kia, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, and a series of legal groups favoring tort reform, which advocates limiting liabilities for defendants.

The Supreme Court didn’t buy GM’s argument, finding the apex doctrine would, in effect, create a double legal standard for C-suite managers.

“Adopting the apex doctrine would necessarily restrict the trial court’s discretion by placing a thumb on the scale so as to suggest a special rule for high-ranking executives of large companies that exists nowhere in the Civil Practice Act,” Justice Charlie Bethel wrote in his decision.

Or as Cooper told the MDJ, “There’s not a dual-class system here in Georgia for justice. If a witness has relevant knowledge, they may be on the company line making the cars, or they may be in the CEO’s office making those decisions.”

GM’s attorney, former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Keith Blackwell, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The court instead sent the issue back down to Judge Bowers, vacating his previous decision, but asking him to reconsider the matter based on the available evidence. Cooper said he’s hopeful the judge will once again agree Barra can be deposed.

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