Saturday, December 11, 2010

Judgment Reversed Due To Failure To Allow Discovery

Update: On November 30, 2011, the opinion discussed below was withdrawn and an en banc opinion released in its place. The en banc opinion is discussed HERE.

In Alvarez v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Company (4D08-3498), the Fourth District reversed the trial court's judgment entered after a jury verdict and remanded for a new trial because the plaintiff was not allowed to conduct sufficient discovery. The opinion began:
Relevant  evidence  in  civil  cases — that  is,  the acceptable knowledge base of  facts  for  the  jury — is  found  in an aggregate of historical  facts, data, information, objects and opinions that the law allows the parties to place before the finder-of-fact to decide the case.  To assist the parties in assembling all the knowledge fairly needed to prove a cause of action or defense, the rules establish a pretrial process called discovery, which (as its name  implies) is also meant  to afford a means of apprehending that which they do not know.  Hence, the process begins with a wide sweep, gathering many kinds of knowledge only possibly germane (if at all), yet capable  of  leading  to  admissible  trial  evidence.  At  discovery’s  end, the accumulated knowledge is distilled into  the evidence the parties can  lay before the jury. 
When this discovery  is not allowed  to have  its  intended scope — for example,  when  one party  is  blocked  from  ascertaining and acquiring from  the other party unprotected, relevant  information and data that  is admissible at trial — the sum of knowledge placed before the jury will be unfairly deficient, hence misleading.  The whole structure of the trial will be faulty.  The jury’s basis for resolving the facts will be tilted against the party denied  that access.  Trial  then will be an expedition on an errant course.  Because  the  possible  factual  base  for  the  jury  has been unreasonably curtailed peremptorily, a jury’s resolution of  the  facts will be unreliable, and its verdict untrustworthy.
The opinion provided a detailed account of the specific facts at issue and why it was error to refuse the plaintiff the opportunity to conduct the discovery. The opinion concluded:
As we  saw  in  the  beginning,  the  apparatus  of  civil  litigation  has incorporated into its structure the right of all parties to discovery of facts, information and  data  involving  the  subject  matter  of  the  dispute.  Denying  one of  the  parties  that  discovery — especially  as  to  essential evidence critical to proving a claim or defeating a defense — is a manifest injustice.  Within the meaning of the harmless error law, the denial here was  considerably prejudicial and perpetrated a substantial  injustice  on the plaintiff in this litigation.  
Upon remand, discovery  will  have  to  resume, governed  by  the holdings  of  this  opinion.  Proper  and full  discovery will  then  require  a new trial, at which both sides will have the right to lay all their relevant, admissible evidence before the jury.
The court's entire opinion is below:
Alvarez v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Company (4D08-3498)


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