Insurance companies should take note of a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Texas that closes a “trapdoor” pretrial discovery gambit by plaintiffs’ lawyers that exposed defendants to sanctions for denying negligence in pretrial requests for admissions and then later conceding negligence at trial.
The ruling in Medina v. Zuniga is particularly significant for insurance companies and adjusters whose insurance policies cover damages in car accident cases. The ruling sends a message that when defendants are faced with these requests, also known as merits-preclusive requests, they can defend their cases without the fear of being sanctioned. While it may be standard practice to request a party to admit to negligence in bodily injury cases in Texas, the Texas Supreme Court ruled such requests for admissions are no method for trying the merits. And the court will not reward their use by upholding sanctions.
The case centered on defendant Christopher Medina’s refusal to admit negligence during the discovery process, which requires good-faith answers. Medina was not only sued for negligence, but also gross negligence for his role in a car accident with Jennifer Zuniga. During discovery, Zuniga served Medina with requests for admissions with the purpose of forcing Medina to concede to negligence and admit he was solely responsible for the accident. The requests at issue included, “Do you admit or deny that you did not operate the vehicle under proper control at the time of the incident made the basis of this lawsuit?” and, “Do you admit or deny that the manner of operation of the vehicle you were driving at the time of the accident made the basis of this lawsuit increase the hazard to the Plaintiff and others upon the roadway?”
Medina denied the requests and the case went to trial.
At the start of trial, Medina’s counsel indicated he would not contest negligence for the accident but denied gross negligence. The plaintiff then sought sanctions against him for conceding at trial what he had previously denied in the discovery process.
Medina argued that at the time he denied the requests, he had reason to believe he might ultimately prevail in showing he was not negligent. Medina also pointed out that even if he admitted ordinary negligence in response to Zuniga’s requests for admissions, Zuniga would have been required prove her contested gross negligence claim. In the end, the trial court awarded sanctions and the jury also found Medina grossly negligent. The Court of Appeals affirmed both rulings.
Medina appealed and the Texas Supreme Court separately reversed the sanctions and the gross negligence finding.
The Texas Supreme Court noted requests for admissions are intended “to simplify trials by eliminating matters about which there is no real controversy, but which may be difficult or expensive to prove” (Sanders v Harder, 227 S.W. 2d 206, 208 (Tex. 1950)), such as “authenticity or admissibility of documents.” They were not intended to be a trapdoor to force a party to admit they were at fault or responsible.
The court also noted concerns with due process for what it calls “death-penalty” sanctions, meaning the court could prevent a defendant from showing evidence of any negligence or defending themselves if that person fails to answer the requests for admission in the time required. The requests are then admitted.
Additionally, the court compared a situation of when you fail to answer a request for admission to one in which you answer by denying, but later concede, like Medina’s actions in the lawsuit with Zuniga. The court explained the later situation also has due process concerns:
“Medina was, after all, allowed to defend the lawsuit as he wanted, including his concession of ordinary negligence at trial. But he should have been able to do so without the prospect of Rule 215.4 sanctions waiting in the wings.”
The court agreed Medina should be able to defend his lawsuit. This decision essentially closes that trapdoor for good and allows defendants to defend their cases without fear of sanctions.
The case is Christopher Medina v Jennifer L. Zuniga, No. 17-0498.
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