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WASHINGTON STATE SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS SANCTIONS FOR DISCOVERY ABUSE CLEARING WAY FOR REINSTATEMENT OF $ 8 MILLION DOLLAR JUDGMENT

In a landmark decision, the Washington State Supreme Court has reinstated an 8 million dollar default judgment entered in favor of a car crash victim seriously injured while a passenger in a Hyundai Accent. The Washington State Supreme Court stated that trial courts need not tolerate deliberate and willful discovery abuse and that in appropriate cases, entry of judgment in favor of the opposing party may be warranted.

Court Rules throughout the nation permit parties in litigation to serve upon opposing parties requests to produce information and records relevant to the lawsuit. This discovery process is central to our American System of justice. In this case, the plaintiff Jesse Magana was rendered a paraplegic in the accident as the result of an alleged negligent design of the car passenger seat which collapsed in the accident. In 2000 and 2001, Magana submitted discovery requests to Hyundai asking for Hyundai to produce documents relating to prior seat back failures in Hyundai products.

Hyundai objected and provided evasive answers to Magana discovery requests seeking information about seat back failures in Hyundai cars. After years of litigation, including a first trial and appeal, Magana moved for an order to compel full and complete responses by Hyundai to the discovery request. Hyundai opposed the motion to produce the prior seat back failure documents claiming it was burdensome and would not lead to discovery of admissible evidence. The trial court rejected Hyundai’s arguments and agreed with Magana and ordered Hyundai to produce the documents. After this order was issued in November, 2005, Hyundai then disclosed that there had been nine other instances of known seat back failures. This disclosure was made just two weeks before Magana’s second trial was to commence.

Based upon Hyundai’s previous failure to disclose the nine prior seat back failures, Magana moved for entry of default judgment. Magna argued that Hyundai delayed in producing the documents for nearly five years severely prejudicing his case. The trial court entered a default judgment against Hyundai for failure to comply with the discovery rules. The trial court found that Hyundai had willfully violated the discovery rules by not disclosing the prior seat back failures when requested to do so in discovery.

The Washington Appellate Court similarly found that Hyundai’s discovery responses were false, misleading, and evasive. However the Appellate Court held that entry of a default judgment in favor of Magana was too severe of a sanction based upon a finding that there was inadequate evidence to support the claim that the late production by Hyundai substantially prejudiced Magana.

The Washington State Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court’s decision and found that in fact, the entry of the default judgement was proper. The Washington State Supreme Court held that Hyundai should have timely responded to Magana’s discovery requests relating to prior seat back failures. Importantly, the decision stated that Magana should not have had to file a motion to compel to require Hyundai to produce the relevant documents. Critical to the decision to enter a default judgment was the determination that Hyundai’s late disclosure had prejudiced Magana’s ability to prepare for trial. As noted by the trial court, sanctions for discovery violations should not reward a party who has committed the violations and granting a continuance would only have exacerbate this situation in Magana case.

Most importantly, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in Magana that broad discovery is permitted under the Court Rules, “it is not grounds for objection that the information sought will not be admissible at trial if the information sought appears likely to lead to discovery of admissible evidence. The Supreme Court Stated:

“If a party objects to an interrogatory or request for production, then the party must seek a protective order under CR 26(c). If the party does not seek a protective order, that the party must respond to the discovery request. The party may not simply ignore or fail to respond to the request. An evasive answer or misleading answer is to be treated as a failure to answer.”

The Magana decision places the burden on the party resisting relevant discovery requests to either produce the documents requested or seek a protective order. A party in Washington State can no longer hide critical, relevant documents behind objections and evasive answers or they will be running the risk of severe Court ordered sanctions.

Maritime injury lawyers representing injured seaman and fisherman frequently battle issues such as that presented in Magana. The practice previously utilized by big maritime employers of objections to discovery and providing incomplete and evasive answers will have to change in the wake of the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision in Magana. Complete crew list should be produced, accidents aboard other vessels owned by the Defendants should be produced, and complete earning records should all now be produced. The burden will be on the employer to get a protective order from the Court rather than simply “ignoring” or objecting to valid requests for discovery.