Pennsylvania Court Holds that Sanctions and Preclusion from Admission of Evidence Were Disproportionate to Discovery Violation
In a recent case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the issue of discovery sanctions following a negligence lawsuit stemming from a motor vehicle accident. Pennsylvania law holds that sanctions are appropriate when they are proportional to the violation of the discovery rule.
Michael Hass alleged that Marvin Reinert was driving a farm tractor that pulled a flat bed wagon, taking up both lanes of a two-lane roadway. Mr. Hass had been on a motorcycle, traveling in the opposite direction, and he claimed that he had to “take evasive action” and lost control of his bike, crashing into the roadway. Mr. Hass brought a negligence lawsuit against Mr. Reinert.
Due to a failure to timely respond to requests for discovery, the trial court granted Mr. Reinert’s motions for sanctions. The discovery concerned Mr. Hass’ motorcycle experience and training as well as his tax records and wage loss information. In addition to granting the motion for sanctions, the court precluded Mr. Hass from presenting evidence on the liability issue. Another motion for sanctions was granted that precluded Mr. Hass from providing evidence concerning the damages issue.
Mr. Reinert then filed a summary judgment motion. Mr. Hass filed a motion to reconsider the order that imposed the discovery sanctions. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment and dismissed Mr. Hass’ complaint with prejudice. Mr. Hass appealed on the grounds that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to hold a hearing and by imposing the discovery sanctions.
The appellate court stated that when reviewing a discovery order and an order for sanctions, they apply an abuse-of-discretion standard. Pennsylvania law allows a court to refuse to permit a disobedient party to support or oppose certain claims or defenses, or to introduce designated documents.
In this case, the trial court sanction orders prevented Mr. Hass from presenting evidence regarding liability or damages. This provided a basis for the summary judgment in favor of Mr. Reinert. A four-part test is often applied to determine if sanction orders are appropriate. The test is set forth in City of Phila. v. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, 985 A.2d 1259 (Pa. 2009). In the court’s analysis, they turned to the content of the discovery requests.
First, it must be determined whether there was prejudice to the non-offending party. Here, the requested discovery information concerned Mr. Hass’ motorcycle experience. This information was vital to preparing a defense. The requests were neither overly burdensome nor irrelevant. Counsel for Mr. Hass failed to respond to Mr. Reinert’s two motions to compel answers, two motions for sanctions, and two sanction orders by the court. But, the court stated, the trial court’s prohibition of Mr. Hass from presenting any evidence regarding damages and liability was not proportionate to the default at issue.
While Mr. Hass failed to respond to the Fourth and Fifth Interrogatories, he did respond to the first three and submitted to deposition by Mr. Reinert. Exclusion of any evidence concerning damages, including medical or motorcycle repair bills, was “disproportionate” to Mr. Hass’ failure to respond to the discovery requests.
The appellate court vacated the order preventing Mr. Hass from presenting liability evidence and the order precluding him from presenting evidence on the damages issue. They remanded the case for an implementation of the FOP Lodge factors. The court also vacated the order granting summary judgment in favor of Mr. Reinert.
More Blog Posts:
Pennsylvania Superior Court Finds Mention of “Insurance” During Auto Accident Lawsuit Not Necessarily Grounds for Mistrial, Scranton Personal Injury Lawyer Blog, July 27, 2015
Injured Pennsylvania Motorcyclist Allowed to Continue Personal Injury Suit, Scranton Personal Injury Lawyer Blog, September 29, 2014