Mediation Message No. 123

MICHAEL D. MARCUS’S MEDIATION MESSAGE NO. 123

DENIALS OF RFAs AND THEIR CONSEQUENCES

Denial of a request for admission (RFA) can lead to an award of costs and attorney’s fees incurred by the propounding party in proving those facts if that party proves the truth of the facts at trial. (C.C.P. sec 2033.420, subd. (a).) The court is required to award those costs and fees unless it finds the party who denied the requests “had reasonable ground to believe [he or she] would prevail on the matter” or “[t]here was other good reason for the failure to admit.” (Sec. 2033.420, subd. (b)(3), (4).) Grace v. Mansourian (2015) 240 Cal.App.4th 523 discusses the consequences of failing to admit certain facts prior to trial despite their obvious truth.

Defendant Mansourian, while driving, hit plaintiff’s car in an intersection. Defendant told a traffic collision investigator that when he entered the intersection the light was yellow and he believed he could make it through before the light turned red. An eyewitness told the investigator defendant ran the red light. Defendant and his mother denied plaintiffs’ RFAs that Mansourian failed to stop at the red light; that failure was negligent and was the actual and legal cause of the accident; that, as a result of the accident, plaintiff was injured and needed medical treatment and the plaintiff was not negligent. Defendants did not offer any expert testimony as to liability nor any evidence on that issue other than defendant’s testimony. Defendant testified that as he was approaching the intersection the light was green. As he got closer to the intersection the light turned yellow. Plaintiffs introduced testimony from defendant’s deposition that he originally stated he was looking at the road. He later amended his testimony to say he was focused on both the road and the signal.

Defendants’ medical expert agreed plaintiff fractured his ankle in two places as a result of the accident and the ankle surgery was necessary but also testified, contrary to plaintiff’s doctor, that plaintiff would have no future problems with his ankle and would not require additional surgery in the future. The defense doctor also agreed plaintiff had suffered a strain or sprain of his neck and back, but disagreed any neck and back pain were a result of the accident, did not believe plaintiff’s back surgery was necessitated by the accident and opined the charges for plaintiff’s neck and back surgery were too high.

The jury found defendant was negligent, awarding plaintiff just over $410,000, including approximately $147,000 for medical expenses, not quite $9,000 for lost earnings, and $255,000 for pain and suffering. It also awarded his wife $30,000 for loss of consortium. Plaintiffs then filed a motion seeking to recover costs of proof of just over $29,000 and attorney’s fees of almost $170,000 under section 2033.420 based on the defendants’ failure to admit certain requests for admissions. The trial court denied the motion, concluding defendants did have a reasonable basis to deny the requests including that the defendant driver reasonably believed he could prevail based on his memory that he did not run a red light.

The appellate court reversed the ruling for an abuse of discretion, concluding that the defendants had no reasonable basis to deny liability for plaintiff’s ankle injury and its treatment. “The question is not whether defendant reasonably believed he did not run the red light but whether he reasonably believed he would prevail on that issue at trial. In light of the substantial evidence defendant ran the red light, it was not reasonable for him to believe he would.” (Id. at p. 529.) “To justify denial of a request, a party must have a ‘reasonable ground’ to believe he would prevail on the issue. … That means more than a hope or a roll of the dice. In light of the substantial evidence defendant was at fault, plus defendants’ apparent understanding of the weakness of their position, as evidenced in their opening statement, defendants’ sole reliance on defendant (driver’s) perception he entered the intersection on a yellow light was not a reasonable basis to believe they would prevail.” (Id. at p. 532.) However, the appellate court held on the issue of damages, because defendants had stipulated to some of the medical bills and plaintiff’s loss of earnings and had presented their own medical expert on the necessity and reasonableness of the plaintiff’s medical treatment and costs, that plaintiffs were not entitled to recover their costs and fees in proving these issues. (Id. at p. 533.)

The lesson of Grace v. Mansourian is that a party, if it denies RFAs, must be prepared to present enough evidence at trial on the facts denied to be able to argue credibly to the court, in opposition to a subsequent motion for costs and fees, that he or she believed they would prevail on the facts at issue. Mansourian, who presented only his own rebutted testimony on liability, could not make that argument.

Judge Michael D. Marcus (Ret.)
ADR Services, Inc.
1900 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 250
Los Angeles, California 90067
(310) 201-0010

Copyright Michael D. Marcus, June 2016

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