In 2001 there was a fatal accident where renovations were being done at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. A construction worker was operating a Toyota forklift moving lumber, and the forklift tipped forwards. An onsite safety foreman, Hilary St. John, ran over and tried to correct the forklift from its rear. But about 5,200 pounds of lumber fell on top of him and he was found dead on the site.
St. John’s family filed a wrongful death claim against Toyota, alleging that the forklift was negligently and defectively designed. Their suit asked for $25 million in compensatory damages. The trial lasted eight weeks and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Toyota.
However before and during the trial, the judge, James McBride, found that Toyota had twice failed to produce forklift design documents. He told jurors that they should conclude that those documents were negative for Toyota. He issued a post-trial order imposing sanctions of $138,984.33 on Toyota; and he granted the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial.
Toyota appealed this, but the First District Court of Appeal upheld the sanctions and new trial decision. In March, 2008, Toyota’s attorneys asked that Judge McBride be disqualified from retrying the case, and from presiding over any related proceedings. In his disqualification motion, attorney John Ranucci wrote:
“Because Judge McBride has previously expressed comments regarding the integrity and veracity of defendants, an average person on the street might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial.”
Not many people file motions to have a judge thrown off a case. It’s risky, because if you fail, you have now alienated that judge. Judges are supposed to always be fair and impartial, but they’re human too.
This case is now in the Alameda County Superior Court, where Judge Frank Roesch will rule on the disqualification motion. How likely is he to throw one of his peers off a case? No doubt we’ll learn of his decision soon.