As we recently reported, government contractor Trinity, Inc. began its trial before a federal District Court judge earlier this month. The case involves extensive allegations of fraudulently modified designs for highway guardrail systems, as well as extensive possible liability under the False Claims Act. In a shocking turn of events, the judge has declared a mistrial and promptly dismissed the jury – citing misconduct on both sides, as well as possible unlawful tactical maneuvers being used to avoid the testimony of certain witnesses.
Details of Mistrial Emerge
Under federal rules of civil procedure, a judge may declare a mistrial for any number of reasons. First and foremost, any occurrence of jury tampering or the exposure of overly-prejudicial evidence in the presence of a jury could trigger the need for a mistrial. Here, the judge’s decision to put an end to the trial was premised on his “serious concerns” with Trinity’s conduct both during the presentation of evidence and during pre-trial matters. Specifically, Judge Gilstrap remarked that it was made clear during testimony on July 17th that Trinity may have engaged in intimidation tactics with regard to a certain witness. The judge also remarked that it was possible Trinity’s president may have committed perjury and tampered with a witness.
The incident in question is alleged to have occurred prior to the start of the trial when Trinity’s president Gregg Mitchell appeared at the office of Dean Sicking, a professor at the University of Alabama. During this meeting, Mr. Mitchell is alleged to have threatened to “smear anyone who testified against him.” He further reiterated he did not expect to see Professor Sicking in the courtroom.
The judge further admonished the relator in the case, Joshua Harmon, for failing to implement proper e-discovery holds on company emails – insinuating the relator may have improperly destroyed possibly damaging electronic communication. Harmon was sanctioned $140,000 for deleting the emails; however, he maintains it was his brother who inadvertently deleted the emails to clear his inbox.
In response to the emerging evidence of impropriety, Judge Gilstrap declared the trial over with just about two hours remaining in testimony. In his order, Gilstrap affirmed, “This case has been replete with errors, gamesmanship, inappropriate conduct and matters that should not be a part of any trial where a fair and impartial verdict is expected….”
An in-chambers conference with counsel is scheduled for August 18, at which point the Judge is expected to set a new trial date.
Plaintiff Harmon has been an outspoken opponent of Trinity since 2012, publicly and unabashedly declaring its involvement in several serious (and some fatal) highway accidents. In his original whistleblower complaint, Harmon alleges that Trinity submitted plans for certain guardrail installations, and subsequently changed those plans and installed modified versions of the guardrail. The complaint further alleges that the guardrails were never crash tested for safety.
There are currently at least nine personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits filed against Trinity as a result of accidents occurring involving the guardrails in question.
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