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Appeals Court Upholds “Death Penalty Order” Sanction That Leads to Multi-Million Dollar Judgment: eDiscovery Case Law

In Crews v. Avco Corp., No. 70756-6-I (Wash. Ct. App. Apr. 6, 2015), a Washington Court of Appeals upheld a “death penalty order” against the defendant for discovery violations, including the failure to produce relevant information, but remanded for amendment of the final judgment of over $17.28 million to reflect any offsets for settlements with other defendants.

Case Background

In this product liability case related to a faulty carburetor that was associated with a plane crash in which several people were killed, the defendant failed to satisfy the plaintiffs’ discovery demands from October 2010 into February 2013, often objecting to most, if not all, of the requests. During part of that time, the defendant relied in part upon its document retention policy and, after being held in contempt, the defendant submitted a declaration from counsel describing its efforts to comply with the court’s order to produce. While not providing the policy itself, counsel explained that “pursuant to company policy” certain categories of documents were “retained only for fixed periods of time” and stating that many of the documents supplied by another defendant were “beyond the various retention periods” in the policy. Ultimately, the plaintiffs’ filed a motion for default against the defendant.

On February 4, 2013, the first day of trial, the judge held oral argument on the plaintiffs’ motion for default, during which the defendant’s counsel finally produced a copy of the records management policy. After reviewing the policy, the judge found that it was unclear whether the policy extended to the documents requested by the plaintiffs and orally granted the plaintiffs’ motion to sanction the defendant. The next day, the judge entered a written order granting the plaintiffs’ motion. The order stated that there was substantial evidence that the defendant did not comply with the plaintiffs’ discovery requests and the court found that the withheld discovery tied directly to the plaintiffs’ burden of proof regarding the defendant’s violation of federal regulations and punitive damages.

The court found that the defendant’s “continued disregard and violation of the discovery and contempt orders is without reasonable excuse and is willful. [Avco] has and continues to substantially prejudice plaintiffs’ preparation for trial and presentation at trial, on issues of liability, causation, and punitive damages.” As a result, the court ruled that “All of each plaintiff’s allegations in their respective operative Complaints against [Avco] are deemed admitted, and all of [Avco’s] defenses, if any, are stricken.”

The jury considered compensatory damages and punitive damages in two separate phases of trial, returning a verdict for the plaintiff of $17,283,000; $6 million of which was in punitive damages. The defendant appealed on multiple grounds, arguing that the order violated due process and that the trial court abused its discretion in imposing the most severe sanctions possible when lesser sanctions would have sufficed and also challenged specific sanctions.

Appeals Court Analysis

Assessing the defendant’s objections, the appellate court described the requirements to justify harsh sanctions – that the discovery violations were willful or deliberate, that the opposing party was substantially prejudiced, and that the trial court explicitly considered lesser sanctions. Following considerable analysis, the appellate court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its findings that the violation of the discovery order was willful, that the plaintiffs’ case was prejudiced and that lesser sanctions would not be adequate for a fair trial.

With regard to the records management policy, the appellate court, while observing that the policy was not part of the record, agreed that the “scope and operation of the policy is unclear and unsupported” and that the defendant “did not submit any other evidence, such as employee affidavits, about how the policy applied to the requested documents and their destruction”.

Though the appellate court essentially affirmed the sanctions imposed, it did remand the case for “amendment of the final judgment to reflect any offsets authorized pursuant to chapter 4.22 RCW.”

So, what do you think? Were the sanctions appropriate or should the court have considered lesser sanctions against the defendant? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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