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CLEVELAND – Pilot Flying J's legal team filed a motion on Friday to halt planned depositions of CEO Jimmy Haslam, President Mark Hazelwood, Vice President of Sales John Freeman and Tom Ingram, public relations handler, according to a report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Mark Tate, attorney for Atlantic Coast Carriers, a Georgia-based trucking firm that is suing Pilot Flying J over claims it was shorted fuel rebate money, had planned to depose the executives on July 23-24.
Pilot Flying J's lawyers argue that because the company has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit, depositions are not permitted. Allowing the depositions to move forward now "could result in the inadvertent waiver of legal defenses and would be prejudicial to Pilot's defense," according to the motion, which also cited a pending settlement that would pay the trucking companies the money owed plus 6 percent.
"If the global settlement is ultimately approved, and plaintiffs do not opt out of the settling class, the claims in this action will be resolved and this case dismissed," the filing reads. "The early discovery sought by plaintiffs through the deposition notices would likewise be mooted and made superfluous."
The motion also noted that the depositions could force Pilot Flying J employees to exercise their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination due to the ongoing criminal probe and in the process, potentially create a prejudicial situation in the civil case, according to the report.
However, Tate told the news outlet that the motion to halt the depositions "is part of the overall effort to cram down a bad settlement to unsuspecting class members. This settlement is more advantageous to Mr. Haslam and the plaintiffs' lawyers who agreed to it than the actual victims of Mr. Haslam's apparent fraud." He added that he plans to file a responding motion to force the depositions by the end of the week.
Tate also stated that he will likely move to certify Atlantic Coast Carriers as an opt-out class-action lawsuit "for those class members who realized they've been hornswoggled by Haslam and his lawyers."
Last week, U.S. District Judge James M. Moody of the Eastern District of Arkansas granted preliminary approval to a proposed settlement agreement that calls for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot Flying J to pay plaintiffs 100 percent of their losses plus 6-percent interest, and to cover all attorney's fees for customers in the class. Eight plaintiffs signed off on the agreement, but several other lawsuits are pending.
On July 25, a federal judicial panel is slated to consider whether the multiple civil suits that have been filed against Pilot Flying J should be transferred to one district for coordinated pretrial proceedings.
In addition to the civil proceedings, a federal grand jury is currently investigating the allegations of fraud in Pilot Flying J's fuel rebate program. Federal officials launched an investigation into the allegations two years ago -- a move that culminated in an April 15 raid of the company's Knoxville headquarters.
To date, five employees have pleaded guilty to their roles in the alleged scheme.
Pilot Flying J is a family-owned business that was started by Haslam's father in 1958. The company operates more than 650 retail locations and is the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas in North America.