Georgia Federal Court Compels Discovery and Imposes Sanctions in Wrongful Death Case

tractor springCourts in America are generally known for their broad discovery rules. Indeed, litigants in American courts, both state and federal, have access to a far wider scope of information than their peers in foreign legal systems. Notwithstanding the expansive breadth of American discovery rules, courts play little role in the exchange of information, leading some litigants to engage in brinkmanship during the discovery process. For instance, in a recent case, Venator v. Interstate Resources, Inc., a Georgia federal magistrate judge was forced to resolve a discovery dispute involving a defendant refusing to disclose supervisor evaluations related to the alleged wrongful death of a tractor-trailer driver.

The death at the heart of Venator occurred in November 2013. The plaintiff in this case was the widow of a tractor-trailer driver who on the 27th of that month arrived at a warehouse owned by Interstate Paper, LLC. Following his arrival at the warehouse, the driver asked an employee at Interstate to assist him in removing a faulty mud flap from the tractor-trailer. The employee agreed and used a fork lift to aid in the removal of the flap. The facts about what occurred afterward remain in dispute, but somehow during the removal process, the driver became pinned between the fork lift and the tractor-trailer. As a result, the driver suffered injuries and died. Following this tragic event, the decedent’s widow then initiated the current suit against Interstate and the employee operating the fork lift, alleging various claims sounding in negligence.

During the course of discovery, a dispute arose between the parties. Specifically, the plaintiff sought a “Supervisor’s Report of Injury/Illness” authored by the supervisor of the employee involved in the tragic event and all e-mails between all other Interstate employees and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Although the defendants ultimately complied with the request, subsequent production showed that the defendant’s earlier disclosures were incomplete and that the report had been revised in a questionable fashion. Given these apparent deficiencies, the plaintiff made a motion to compel any evaluations of the the supervisor who authored the Supervisor Report and for sanctions. Unsurprisingly, a magistrate judge for the Southern District of Georgia granted the motion.

First, the defendants argued that granting the motion to compel would be in error because the plaintiff had not attempted to negotiate the discovery request in good faith, and, alternatively, the information sought contained confidential information that was protected from disclosure. The court found neither argument persuasive. First, despite the defendants’ protestations otherwise, evidence of face-to-face or telephone communications is not necessary for a showing that a party attempted to confer about discovery in good faith. Moreover, the evidence showed that the plaintiff not only engaged in telephonic conversations but also sent numerous e-mails in an effort to negotiate discovery. Second, it is well established that “[e]vidence is relevant if it has any tendency to make the existence of any fact . . . more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” Steel Erectors, Inc. v. AIM Steel Int’l, Inc., 312 F.R.D. 673, 676 (S.D. Ga. 2016). In this case, the court found that evaluations of the supervisor who authored the dubious report were clearly relevant, for those evaluations could be used to not only support the negligent training claim but also impeach the supervisor’s testimony regarding his report of the accident and evaluations of the employee involved.

Furthermore, the Court found that sanctions should be imposed on the defendants for their discovery conduct. Indeed, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “imposes an affirmative duty to engage in pretrial discovery in a responsible manner that is consistent with the spirit and purposes of Rules 26 through 37.” In re Delta/AirTran Baggage Fee Antitrust Litig., 846 F. Supp. 2d 1335, 1350 (N.D. Ga. 2012) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(g) advisory committee’s note (internal quotation marks omitted)). To that end, attorneys must engage in a reasonable inquiry to ensure the production is responsive to the opposing party’s request and may only rely on a client’s representations if reliance is appropriate under the circumstances.  See, e.g., St. Paul Reins. Co. v. Commercial Fin. Corp., 198 F.R.D. 508, 516 (N.D. Iowa 2000). Here, the court noted that the defendants were not absolved simply because the responsive documents were later forwarded to the plaintiff. Indeed, a party need not show resulting prejudice in order for sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 to be imposed. Here, the Court found that counsel for the defendants had done little more than simply direct the request to the defendants, which, under the circumstances, fell far below the inquiry necessary. Accordingly, the Court ordered that counsel for the defendants pay sanctions.

Although most attorneys respect the discovery rules, disputes are not uncommon. Accordingly, anyone considering taking legal action to seek compensation for an injury should consider finding counsel with experience not only in general discovery practices but also in assessing and investigating the sufficiency of an opposing party’s production. The Atlanta tractor-trailer accident attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have represented a number of injured Georgia drivers and are prepared to help you at all stages of the legal process. Indeed, if you’ve been recently injured in a motor vehicle accident and are curious about your options for recovery, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.

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