Default Judgment as a Discovery Sanction

Richardson v. State, 2006 MT 43

Richardson, who was 84 years old at the time of her accident, fell in the locker room while taking a water aerobics class on the Montana College of Technology campus located in Butte. She suffered severe injury to her hip which required surgical reconstruction and months of rehabilitation. She filed suit against the state of Montana seeking recovery for her medical expenses as well as pain and suffering.

In April of 2003, Richardson sent her first discovery requests to the State seeking information related to her case. Following the State’s response, she sent a second set of discovery requests which included an interrogatory and a request for production seeking information regarding other slip and fall accidents at the same facility. The State refused to answer all ten interrogatories in this second set of requests, claiming that the information was irrelevant, that the requests were not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, and that the requests were vague and ambiguous. Additionally, the State offered no legally recognizable response to four of Richardson’s six requests for production. They simply responded, “Not applicable.”

Richardson sent a letter to the State, requesting an adequate response but the State failed to answer. Richardson then filed a Motion to Compel Discovery in February of 2004. The State responded to the motion by saying that the word “area” as used in “the area of Plaintiff’s fall” was too vague and ambiguous to answer. Initially, the State continued to contest Richardson’s requests for information about other falls, but during oral argument on the Motion to Compel finally agreed to provide that information. The District Court granted Richardson’s Motion to Compel, but did not grant her sanctions.

Following the Court order, Richardson reserved her discovery requests, with a few minor changes. Although the State provided answers to most of them, it continued to refuse to answer the questions regarding other falls in the facility. Finally, on May 13, 2004 – over seven months after Richardson’s initial request, over two months after discovery had closed, and a more eleven days before trial – Richardson received a response to her originally submitted interrogatory and request for production regarding other falls at the facility.

There were brief descriptions of eight other falls resulting in injuries, and seven incident reports. However, the incident reports were of such a poor quality that legible copies had to be requested from the State which consumed more time before trial. Finally, a four day jury trial was held where the jury found eight to four that the State was not negligent.

Noting the Montana Supreme Court “strictly adheres to the policy that dilatory discovery actions shall not be dealt with leniently,” the Court looked at appropriate sanctions. It noted that it had previously held that some discovery abuses warranted the imposition of a default judgment on the issue of liability and determined that it was appropriate in this case as well. The Court observed that “[t]he State’s concealment of the evidence of other falls prevented Richardson from assessing the merits of the State’s proffered defenses and building her case-in-chief. Additionally the belated disclosure preventing Richardson from conducting meaningful follow-up discovery in time for trial.”

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that “the State’s pattern of willful and bad faith conduct outweighs the general preference for trial on the merits. Simply put, the State demonstrated clear disregard for a resolution on the merits when it improperly concealed important evidence by asserting frivolous objections, and subsequently sought to gain strategic advantage thereby.” On the basis, they entered a default judgment against the State on the issue of liability, and remanded for further proceedings to determine liability.

What are Interrogatories?

If your injury case has proceeded to the point where a lawsuit has been filed, you may come across the word interrogatories. More specifically, you may come across a long list of questions you need to answer in a certain period of time. Interrogatories are written questions that one party in a lawsuit sends to another.

Your lawyer will help you in answering the questions, and it’s very important that you tell the truth in this process. We’ve talked before how important it is that you tell the truth to your Montana injury attorney and the same applies here. Let your lawyer work for you, don’t tie his hands behind his back with facts that he doesn’t know.

Interrogatories are a part of the discovery process which is governed by the Montana Rules of Civil Procedure in state court and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in federal court. The basics of the rules are the same, but there can be some differences. The point of discovery is for the parties to make a full and open exchange of all the information relevant to the case. The scene in Matlock where the secret witness suddenly testifies to seeing the murderer in a different town the night of the killing just doesn’t happen. And for as much of a pain as answering all those interrogatories may be, remember that a full exchange of information also lets the other side know just how strong your case is.

It’s important to remember that discovery in general, and interrogatories specifically, are a legal process governed by statutes and case law. Your injury lawyer is there to guide you through the process, so make use of the resource. Ask questions if you’re confused and keep asking them until you understand.