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On April 5, a Matagorda County, Texas, judge threatened Vinson & Elkins partner Morgan Lee Copeland Jr., his firm and his corporate client Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., with possible sanctions. Judge Craig Estlinbaum also declared a mistrial based on Copeland’s alleged actions. Estlinbaum found that Copeland, in defending Bridgestone Corp.’s Firestone unit against a quadriplegic wreck victim’s claims, violated a court order during his opening statement by mentioning the alleged marijuana use of a co-plaintiff. The co-plaintiff was driving at the time of the accident, which precipitated the suit. “The court finds that the comments made by Mr. Copeland touched on an issue that is deeply prejudicial to the right for a fair trial to the plaintiffs … and that the prejudice caused by Mr. Copeland’s violation of the court’s order in limine cannot be cured by an instruction to the jury,” the judge wrote in his order. In the same document, Estlinbaum ordered that Copeland, his firm and the corporation return to his court to “show cause” for why the judge should not find them in contempt and sanction them. If Estlinbaum finds them in contempt after a scheduled Friday hearing on the matter, he threatened in his order that he could slap Copeland, the firm and the corporation each with a $500 fine, make them pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees and the court’s trial costs, and send them to jail for as long as six months. In the underlying case — Brunner v. U-Haul International Inc. — relatives of Erin Brunner, who was a passenger at the time of the accident, allege that a faulty Firestone tire partially triggered the 1999 rollover of a Ford Explorer that left the 22-year-old unable to walk or move her arms. Firestone, which is only one of the defendants in the suit, denies its tires were defective. In his opening statements, according to V&E media relations manager Joe Householder, Copeland mentioned marijuana three times. On each occasion, Householder says, Copeland referred to marijuana in connection with Sally Kowalik, the driver of the vehicle. Kowalik initially had been a defendant in the case but later became a cross-plaintiff when she also sued the tire company. In his opening remarks, Householder says, Copeland told jurors that, as she embarked on a lengthy car trip, Kowalik had available five to eight marijuana cigarettes. Jeff Fanaff, an associate with Houston’s Acosta, Shrode & Foul�, is defending Kowalik. Fanaff says his client conceded in a deposition that she had used marijuana. Kowalik has also sued Firestone. Her lawyer, Brian Clary of Humble, Texas, could not be reached for comment by press time. Mikal Watts, a partner in Corpus Christi’s Watts & Heard who represents the plaintiffs, says that by mentioning the marijuana in connection with driver Kowalik, the V&E partner left jurors with the impression that she smoked all of those cigarettes herself. The only way to alter that impression with jurors, Watts says, was to suggest that the passengers smoked some. But the judge, Watts says, had specifically barred the lawyers from discussing any alleged passenger drug use. Therefore, Watts contends, Copeland created a situation where the only way to clarify the facts for the jury was to violate the judge’s order. V&E and Firestone representatives are not eager to argue about the judge’s actions before the hearing on Friday. “The judge has stated he prefers we confine our arguments to the courtroom,” says Christine Karbowiak, vice president of public affairs for Firestone. She notes, however, that there has been no discussion of replacing V&E on the case. V&E’s Copeland did not return two calls for this story by press time. Householder says “The client does not want him to comment.” Householder does note, however, that his firm intended to file a written response before the Friday hearing and that it would include the following statement: “Vinson & Elkins did not understand the Court’s order to have the meaning that the Court has now indicated that the order had, and therefore, does not believe that it violated the order, and certainly did not do so intentionally.” In an April 5 motion filed prior to the judge’s order, Copeland and his co-counsel, Scott G. Edwards, argued that a mistrial wasn’t warranted because the other side didn’t object when Copeland first made his marijuana-use comments. Edwards, a partner in Dallas’ Hartline, Dacus, Dreyer & Kern, didn’t return a call seeking comment. “Plaintiff tells this Court that the statements made by Firestone’s counsel were so egregious as to warrant jail time and a State Bar grievance, yet failed to make a single objection at the time the statements were made,” Copeland wrote to the judge in a motion opposing the plaintiffs’ motion for mistrial. “To obtain a mistrial based on a violation of a limine order … a party must object timely, i.e., as soon as the alleged violation occurs,” Copeland wrote. In the same motion, the V&E lawyer also noted that the plaintiffs’ lawyers themselves had mentioned marijuana use during their voir dire statements. The motion filed by Copeland and Edwards also argued that they had not implied in their opening statement that all the plaintiffs smoked marijuana. “The jury should simply be told not to make that inference,” Copeland wrote in the motion.

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