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A lot of organizations have helplines where employees or others can call to ask questions or raise ethical or legal concerns. Anyone who has ever reviewed the information from these helplines or responded to the calls know just how diverse and, frankly, crazy some of the calls can be. It is not surprising that crazy helpline calls get ignored and do not get investigated.

A huge legal victory for GM demonstrates though that an organization ignores the crazy calls at its peril.  

GM was in litigation over faulty ignition switches in its cars. During a trial, the plaintiff testified that he lost his dream house because after his car accident, which was caused by the faulty ignition switch, his memory was so impaired that he misplaced the check for the down payment and he was unable to work the necessary overtime hours to make his house payments.

Unfortunately for the plaintiff, by complete happenstance, the real estate agent who had sold him the house heard a news report about the case and including the plaintiff’s testimony about losing his house.

Upon hearing the news, the real estate agent became enraged and called GM.

According to the real estate agent, the GM plaintiff lost the house because of fraud, not as fall out from the car accident. The real estate agent evicted the GM plaintiff after the agent learned that the down payment check for the house was altered to make it appear to be more than it was. Three digits had been added to the down payment check moving it from a check worth a couple hundred bucks to one worth a couple hundred thousand bucks.

Automotive News reported that initially, GM was skeptical of the real estate agent’s claims about the fraudulent check since as GM explained:

“many people offer information in highly publicized cases that doesn’t pan out.” (Automotive News)

But, some how, the allegations made there way to the trial attorneys. The trial attorneys investigated the real estate agent’s claim and ultimately concluded they had enough evidence of the fraud to tell the judge and the plaintiff’s legal team. This caused the plaintiff to lawyer up – with a criminal defense attorney since he apparently realized his plaintiff’s attorney was not going to help him with the potential perjury and fraud charges. Ultimately, the plaintiff dropped the case against GM in the middle of trial without receiving a penny.

Now, I have no idea whether the enraged real estate agent called the GM helpline or some other GM “division” to out the plaintiff. But, I doubt he called right to the legal department and got the trial lawyers on the phone.

It is impressive that GM was actually able to route this call where it needed to go. But it is also a good lesson for other businesses on how to respond to helpline calls. Many businesses simply ignore calls like the one GM got from the real estate agent – chalking it up to crazy people not knowing what’s up and therefore not worth investigating.

But, the crazy calls may be alerting your business to something significant – employee theft, bribery, or some other crime or fraud.

So, next time you are reviewing calls to the helpline and are getting ready to ignore something because it isn’t worth the time to investigate; stop for one minute and think about the real estate agent’s call to GM and the millions of bucks it saved GM.  

It is probably worth it to review and close out your helpline calls, even the crazy ones.  

The intersection of law, business, criminal activity crime and ethics: why do some companies violate the law? what happens when they do? what is ethical? how do we get corporations to follow the law? can lawyers help and, if so, what is the lawyer’s role? Stay tuned, we’re going to address all of these issues and more in When the Writ Hits the Fan.

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