Baker v. General Motors Corp.
Annotate this Case
522 U.S. 222 (1998)
OCTOBER TERM, 1997
BAKER ET AL. v. GENERAL MOTORS CORP.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT
No. 96-653. Argued October 15, 1997-Decided January 13, 1998
For 15 of the years Ronald Elwell worked for respondent General Motors Corporation (GM), he was assigned to a group that studied the performance of GM vehicles. Elwell's studies and research concentrated on vehicular fires, and he frequently aided GM lawyers defending against product liability actions. The Elwell-GM employment relationship soured in 1987, and Elwell agreed to retire after serving as a consultant for two years. Disagreement surfaced again when Elwell's retirement time neared and continued into 1991. That year, plaintiffs in a Georgia product liability action deposed Elwell. The Georgia case involved a GM pickup truck fuel tank that burst into flames just after a collision. Over GM's objection, Elwell testified that the truck's fuel system was inferior to competing products. This testimony differed markedly from testimony Elwell had given as GM's in-house expert witness. A month later, Elwell sued GM in a Michigan County Court, alleging wrongful discharge and other tort and contract claims. GM counterclaimed, contending that Elwell had breached his fiduciary duty to GM. In settlement, GM paid Elwell an undisclosed sum of money, and the parties stipulated to the entry of a permanent injunction barring Elwell from testifying as a witness in any litigation involving GM without GM's consent, but providing that the injunction "shall not operate to interfere with the jurisdiction of the Court in ... Georgia [where the litigation involving the fuel tank was still pending]." (Emphasis added.) In addition, the parties entered into a separate settlement agreement, which provided that GM would not institute contempt or breach-of-contract proceedings against Elwell for giving subpoenaed testimony in another court or tribunal. Thereafter, the Bakers, petitioners here, subpoenaed Elwell to testify in their product liability action against GM, commenced in Missouri state court and removed by GM to federal court, in which the Bakers alleged that a faulty GM fuel pump caused the vehicle fire that killed their mother. GM asserted that the Michigan injunction barred Elwell's testimony. After in camera review of the Michigan injunction and the settlement agreement, the District Court allowed the Bakers to depose Elwell and to call him as a witness at trial, stating alternative grounds for its ruling: (1) Michigan's injunction need not be enforced because blocking Elwell's testimony would violate Missouri's
"public policy," which shielded from disclosure only privileged or otherwise confidential information; (2) just as the injunction could be modified in Michigan, so a court elsewhere could modify the decree. Elwell testified for the Bakers at trial, and they were awarded $11.3 million in damages. The Eighth Circuit reversed, ruling, inter alia, that Elwell's testimony should not have been admitted. Assuming, arguendo, the existence of a public policy exception to the full faith and credit command, the court concluded that the District Court erroneously relied on Missouri's policy favoring disclosure of relevant, nonprivileged information, for Missouri has an "equally strong public policy in favor of full faith and credit." The court also determined that the evidence was insufficient to show that the Michigan court would modify the injunction barring Elwell's testimony.
Held: Elwell may testify in the Missouri action without offense to the national full faith and credit command. Pp.231-241.
(a) The animating purpose of the Constitution's Full Faith and Credit Clause "was to alter the status of the several states as independent foreign sovereignties, each free to ignore obligations created under the laws or by the judicial proceedings of the others, and to make them integral parts of a single nation throughout which a remedy upon a just obligation might be demanded as of right, irrespective of the state of its origin." Milwaukee County v. M. E. White Co., 296 U. S. 268, 277. As to judgments, the full faith and credit obligation is exacting. A final judgment in one State, if rendered by a court with adjudicatory authority over the subject matter and persons governed by the judgment, qualifies for recognition throughout the land. See, e. g., Matsushita Elec. Industrial Co. v. Epstein, 516 U. S. 367, 373. A court may be guided by the forum State's "public policy" in determining the law applicable to a controversy, see Nevada v. Hall, 440 U. S. 410, 421-424, but this Court's decisions support no roving "public policy exception" to the full faith and credit due judgments, see, e. g., Estin v. Estin, 334 U. S. 541, 546. In assuming the existence of a ubiquitous "public policy exception" permitting one State to resist recognition of another's judgment, the District Court in the Bakers' action misread this Court's precedent. Further, the Court has never placed equity decrees outside the full faith and credit domain. Equity decrees for the payment of money have long been considered equivalent to judgments at law entitled to nationwide recognition. See, e. g., Barber v. Barber, 323 U. S. 77. There is no reason why the preclusive effects of an adjudication on parties and those "in privity" with them, i. e., claim preclusion and issue preclusion, should differ depending solely upon the type of relief sought in a civil action. Cf., e. g., id., at 87 (Jackson, J., concurring). Full faith
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