Yesterday, representatives of the asbestos plaintiff’s bar argued in opposition to the terms of GM’s proposed asset sale, as briefly described in the NYT article here. The WSJ covered it here , but said even less.
Accounts of the hearing and other information sources also indicated that New GM will be aiming for an IPO next year, as described in this WSJ article. It surely will be interesting to read the disclosures and caveats in the prospectus when New GM tries to sell shares next year and the prospectus tries to disclose and explain the material long-term legal risks inherent in the present rush through chapter 11 in a manner that raises significant issues regarding the enforceability/constitutionality of the present proceedings.
Down the line, expect that disappointed asbestos claimants and/or car dealers may well sue New GM regardless of the bankruptcy court orders and/or may proceed with collateral attacks of the sort that were successfully raised in the Agent Orange cases when “later” tort claimants were allowed to sue the Agent Orange makers despite the prior class action and prior settlement. Why were the “later” claimants allowed to sue? Because they were not yet hurt and so did not yet have claims when the Agent Orange issues were in court, and no one in court actually protected their interests in a conflict free way. In short, the future claimants did not receive due process during the original Agent Orange proceedings.
How does that apply here? When New GM goes to sell shares, one can expect that disappointed asbestos claimants and car dealers will assert that this chapter 11 case has been unconstitutional. The result presumably will be the IPO share price will fall due to whatever value the market gives the uncertainty about whether New GM really is immune from future claims. If/when that happens, everyone will find themselves back in the type of situation that arose when the goal was to create a public market for shares in the Manville entity that emerged from chapter 11. Back then, concerns were raised that Manville shares were undervalued because of uncertainty regarding whether the outcome of the Manville bankruptcy would be legally sustainable over the long term due to constitutional and other legal issues arising in Manville’s chapter 11 case. Ultimately, to help drive up the share price, Congress in 1994 enacted bankruptcy code section 524(g) to retroactively “bless” the result in the Manville bankruptcy.
How did 524(g) work? The statute did well to create short-term value that Wall Street could sell. But, the terms of section 524(g) ultimately proved to be a huge mistake since the section gave enormous leverage to holders of even meritless or de minimis tort claims. How did that happen? Section 524(g) says that a 524(g) injunction can issued to bar future asbestos claims only if the chapter 11 plan is approved by 75% of the asbestos claimants, and the statute did not on its face draw lines between the holders of meritless claims and the holders of more meritorious claims, such as the claims of victims of mesothelioma, a disease plainly caused in many cases by inhalation of asbestos. Therefore, due to the terms of section 524(g), and due to various tort law developments, the game for plaintiff’s lawyers and claimants became all about aggregating thousands of asbestos claims, regardless of merit. Thus, in trying to fix a short-term problem, Congress itself helped to incentivize the x-ray vans and other union screenings that later lead to mass filings of law suits that started spiraling up in the mid to late 1990s and by 2000-2001 had exploded to the point that even more companies were driven into chapter 11.
P.S. The absence of transparency in bankruptcy continues. It would be interesting to read the argument and questions underway in GM, and indeed one would think that would be easy for this nationally important case for which the public and other businesses could and should be fully informed through prompt online publication of free copies of the hearing transcript. But that will not happen for 90 days because GM, the official committees, Judge Gerber and the Obama Administration’s Auto Task Force have not taken the simple step of entering an order allowing immediate electronic posting in the docket of the hearing transcripts, a step that is taken 90 days after the hearing. Instead, they continue to tolerate (enjoy?) the antithesis of transparency, which is a short-sighted bankruptcy court rule requiring 90 days of delay for publication of hearing transcripts due to fears that a social security number or other like information might be uttered during the hearing and then published in a piece of paper.
In a painfully minor nod to this lack of transparency problem, the Court’s website says that audio tapes will be put on PACER, but this week’s hearings still are not online as audio files as of July 2 at 12:00 pm. So, for now, those with extra money can buy unofficial transcripts for however many hundreds or thousands of dollars they are being sold. Or, one can wait and slowly wade through the e online audio transcript when they some day are made available through PACER. Or, you can wait and be fully informed long after the information is most useful. Go here to read more about the audio transcripts. The same text also is set out below. If you do listen, let me know if you hear the lawyers or Judge Gerber mention any social security numbers.
The United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York is pleased to announce a pilot project to make digital audio recordings of court proceedings relating to Chrysler LLC, 09-50002, and General Motors Corporation, 09-50026, publicly available online. The audio files are accessible through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system. Registration for PACER access may be obtained at http://www.pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/
Please remember that these digital recordings are copies of court proceedings and are provided as a convenience to the public at the cost of $0.08 per audio file. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 753 (b) “no transcripts of the proceedings of the court shall be considered as official except those made from the records certified by the reporter or other individual designated to produce the record.” A list of approved transcription companies can be found on the court’s website.