Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Florida Law: Appellate Court Reverses Trial Court Over Discovery Limits

An interesting decision from the Florida 4th DCA. It goes to show what lengths a corporate defendant will go to keep information from being disclosed (in this case, four years of 'protracted' fights).  From the appellate opinion:

It is said in this case that a trial judge unreasonably curtailed one party's pretrial discovery of directly relevant, valid and reliable information reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence. The argument is that the critical information about the subject matter was lodged solely with the adverse party, but the court's errant discovery restrictions resulted in one-sided evidence before the jury. Hence, there was a verdict based on faulty, defective information. It is contended that the resulting judgment must be reversed and the case returned to the trial court to allow the full measure of discovery in accord with the principles and purposes of the rules governing that process.
The underlying action was based on a personal wreck involving a fatality. The Plaintiff claimed that a tire tread separation caused a wreck, and Cooper Tire was sued.   The principal issue for discovery centered on the issue of whether the tire was defective and unreasonably dangerous in ordinary operation. Equally critical to discovery's scope was Cooper Tire's "state-of-the-art" affirmative defense.

When certain documents were sought, the Defendant filed numerous motions to keep the discovery out of the hands of the Plaintiff. Typical, you say. In this case, there was at least one evidentiary hearing that last four days, and there were 'protracted hearing over the span of four years." This fight continued over the course of two judges assigned to the action.

I reversing the lower court, the 4th DCA wrote this critical explanation that discovery should have been permitted on the issue of tire tread separation:

It  is difficult to comprehend any valid basis for concluding that it could not possibly have affected the jury's consideration of the claims and defenses. This was evidence from Cooper Tire's own design and manufacturing processes of all its models of passenger-light truck tires. What might be thought by reasonable jurors as merely an anomaly if found in only a single model tire quite reasonably could be seen as strong evidence of design defects if found in tires across the spectrum of the kind of product at issue. Denying plaintiff the discovery of this evidence from Cooper Tire itself is the equivalent of denying Cooper Tire discovery from plaintiff as to the use of seatbelts and maintenance of the tires, as well as of the financial and emotional effects of the death of the decedent on the members of his family.

A good read not only for the rules regarding discovery, but for the lengths a party will to to thwart the very purpose of the rules.

Find the case here: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=16653302306530515981&hl=en&as_sdt=2&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr