Buffett may be deposed in lawsuit

NEW YORK — Warren Buffett, the billionaire CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, may be ordered to submit to questioning under oath in a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit.

Brad Mart, a former executive at Berkshire unit Forest River, petitioned for a deposition of Buffett to demonstrate the parent company's role in his firing, according to a June 17 motion in federal court in South Bend, Ind.

Omaha-based Berkshire, one of the defendants named in Mart's lawsuit, has said it wasn't involved in the dismissal. In a July 6 brief, Berkshire asked the court to protect Buffett from questioning.

The request to depose Buffett, the world's third-richest person, escalates a conflict that already includes Mart's allegations of fraud and threats of violence at Forest River, the Elkhart, Ind.-based recreational vehicle maker.

Mart's chance of winning a settlement may improve if the judge orders the deposition, said lawyers including Robert Parker of Merrillville, Ind.-based Burke Costanza & Cuppy.

"The word might come down, 'Fight this deposition as hard as you can but if we lose, settle the case,' " Parker, who isn't involved in the Berkshire case, said in an interview.

Companies including BP have tried to block efforts to depose executives. John Browne, the former chief executive at BP, fought for 18 months against a court-ordered deposition tied to a 2005 explosion at a refinery in Texas before going under oath. BP tried to protect Browne, arguing that he had no unique knowledge of the blast that killed 15.

Buffett isn't accused of wrongdoing. His deposition would help determine facts of the case, and may lead to his testimony at trial. Buffett didn't immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment sent to an assistant.

The court may withhold an order for a deposition of Buffett, at least temporarily, and direct Mart to seek discovery through affidavits and interviews with lower-ranking Berkshire employees, lawyers said.

Mart requested Buffett's deposition to combat Berkshire's claim that the firm should be dropped from the lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction.

Berkshire, the parent company, doesn't do business in Indiana and shouldn't be subject to courts in that state, the company said in a June 1 request to dismiss the case. Mart said Berkshire's control over Forest River submits the firm to Indiana law and Buffett's statements can help show that.

Buffett picks the CEOs of each of Berkshire's more than 70 operating units and oversees the firm with a staff of about 20 at the company's Omaha headquarters.

Buffett bought Forest River in 2005 and left its CEO, Peter Liegl, in charge of the unit. Mart, who helped arrange the $800 million sale to Berkshire, was fired last year after he went to Buffett and accused Liegl of fraud, according to the April complaint.