Fighting for Discovery Can Be an Uphill Battle Against Corporations

When a lawsuit is brought the positions of the parties are frequently unequal. This is often the case for products liability suits, which involve an injured consumer or user of a product seeking to recover damages from the maker or seller of the product. Being a large and sometimes repeat player in the legal system can give businesses an advantage over an individual that is using the court system for the first time. Depending on the size, structure, nature of the business, as well as other factors, businesses may have an in-house legal department or regular representation from an outside firm. This kind of legal experience and expertise can sometimes result in the business defendant being able to delay, increase the cost of, or otherwise inhibit the discovery process. A potential plaintiff needs a competent, experienced, and dedicated lawyer to ensure that all the discovery evidence he or she is entitled to is provided by the defendant.

An example of this type of battle is the recent case called Soileau v. Smith’s True Value and Rental, which named Deere & Company and John Deere Limited as defendants. Ms. Soileau was injured in an accident on November 1, 2007 when a John Deere Model 460 front end loader became detached from a John Deere Model 4510 tractor and struck her right leg. Her initial lawsuit was brought on April 21, 2008.

Ms. Soileau filed interrogatories and requests for production of documents at the time of initially filing her lawsuit. However, each round of requests seemed to lead to refusals, delay, and incomplete information. Ms. Soileau even received incomplete information from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. This battle eventually led Ms. Soileau to turn to the court to force cooperation from the defendants. In addition to a motion to compel the defendants to answer her interrogatories, she sought to have them sanctioned, barred from producing certain evidence at trial, and forced to pay penalties and attorney fees for the trouble caused by their lack of cooperation.

On March 12, 2009, approaching one year after the lawsuit was initiated, the defendants received a court order to comply with discovery procedures. When this still did not motivate the defendants to fully cooperate, Ms. Soileau again turned to the courts. On May 22, she filed a motion to compel, to have the defendants held in contempt, and to have sanctions imposed. The trial court granted all of Ms. Soileau’s requests, finding that the defendants had no good explanation for their delay or the piecemeal method of providing information, and that they had not taken their obligations seriously. The trial court found as a matter of fact that the defendants had been hiding information. The defendants appealed.

Despite the legal system being adversarial (each side trying to advocate their point of view), there is also a higher goal of justice and fairness. The Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure provides that a party may turn to a court for an order compelling discovery if dissatisfied with another party’s responses. The decision to grant such relief rests within the discretion of the trial court.

Parties are allowed to use a variety of methods, including written or oral questions and requests for production of documents, to obtain evidence. The evidence available for discovery includes any matter which is not privileged and which is relevant to the subject matter involved in the suit. Evidence or other information may even be subject to discovery if it would reasonably lead to the discovery of evidence that is permitted in trial.

Refusing to cooperate with discovery requests can lead to court-imposed consequences for the uncooperative party, including a court order to produce discovery materials. However, there is a distinction between failing to cooperate with a normal discovery request and failing to obey court-ordered discovery. The former is sometimes justified, but may lead to a court order if unjustified. The latter is a more serious offense.

The Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure art. 1471 includes the following consequences as available against a party that fails to comply with discovery orders: (1) an order that the matters are established as fact (basically assuming facts as true when a party denies discovery); (2) an order preventing the disobedient party from opposing claims or presenting defenses; (3) an order stopping the proceedings until the order is obeyed or rendering a default judgment against the disobedient party; (4) an order treating the failure to obey any orders as contempt of court. When a trial court determines that any of the above consequences are appropriate, a reviewing court will only overturn this decision if there is abuse of discretion. In the case of John Deere, the reviewing court found no such abuse by the trial court.

The case of Ms. Soileau and the John Deere loader shows how difficult, tiring, and time-consuming discovery procedures can be. All the effort, the added hearings, and the expenses incurred along the way are entirely in addition to the actual reason for seeking help — Ms. Soileau’s original personal injury suit. Having excellent legal help will allow a plaintiff to obtain the necessary evidence, and perhaps even compensation for any undue trouble, to successfully support a claim against a company with a lot of resources.