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California Appellate Court Holds Denials of Requests for Admission Inadmissible At Trial

The First District Court of Appeal in Gonsalves v. Li (2015) WL 164606, recently held as a matter of first impression that a defendant’s denials of requests for admission are not admissible at trial in an ordinary personal injury action.

Plaintiff, a BMW dealership sales person, claimed personal injuries resulting from an automobile accident. Plaintiff was the passenger of a vehicle taken for a test-drive by defendant/appellant. Both parties’ experts agreed that leading up to the accident the vehicle was traveling approximately 25 miles per hour, entered the curve of a highway on-ramp, and accelerated. Defendant lost control of the vehicle in the on-ramp, striking the guardrail. Plaintiff claimed neck and back injuries requiring both past and future surgeries. The jury awarded $118,642,86 in past medical expenses, $90,000 in future medical expenses, and $1,000,000 in total non-economic damages.

At issue on appeal was the trial court’s admission into evidence of defendant’s denials to Requests for Admission (RFA’s). Over defense objections, plaintiff’s counsel was permitted at trial to inform the jury the defendant had been asked to admit that he was “driving too fast for the conditions” as he began his turn onto the on-ramp, and that he responded, “Responding party has a lack of information and knowledge to admit this Request for Admission. A reasonable inquiry concerning this matter has been made, and the information known or readily obtainable is insufficient to enable responding party to admit this matter.” Plaintiff’s counsel then questioned defendant regarding this response as well as other similar responses to RFA’s.

During closing argument, plaintiff’s counsel argued, “I encourage you to look at . . . the Requests for Admissions that we sent to [defendant] asking him to admit some very basic facts about this crash. His responses are there as well. Let’s just look at a few of them . . . This is a simple question, ladies and gentleman. ‘How much did you push on the accelerator.’ [His response] is a bunch of double speak[,] . . . a bunch of ‘I’m sorry I’m not taking responsibility and not only am I doing it, I’m doing it in a way that makes no sense.’ . . . [I]t’s been more than four and a half years since this crash, and he will not in any way take any responsibility for it . . . And that’s why we need to impanel a jury like you.”

On appeal, defense counsel argued that although the discovery statutes expressly permit any part of interrogatories or depositions to be used at trial, only admissions to RFA’s are admissible at trial. The defense further argued while the statutes provide for monetary sanctions when a party unreasonably fails to admit matters, they do not permit the admission of denials, objections, or failures to respond at trial.

The appellate court agreed with defense counsel that the discovery statutes do not permit admission of denials to RFA’s at trial. The court cited Rifkind v. Superior Court (1994) 22 Cal.App.4th 1255, in which a witness was asked “legal contention questions” at deposition including all facts, documents, and witnesses supporting each affirmative defense. The court in Rifkind condemned asking these questions at deposition, stating they “require the party interrogated to make a ‘law-to-fact application that is beyond the competence of most lay persons’ . . . their basic vice when used at a deposition is that they are unfair.” (Id. at p. 1262.)

The Gonsalves court held the same underlying concerns applied to the questioning of defendant regarding his qualified denials at trial. The court further noted that at least three other states held RFA denials are inadmissible at trial. The highest court in Massachusetts held that such denials are not admissible at trial, stating, “The purpose of [RFA’s] is to narrow the issues for trial by ‘identifying those issues and facts as to which proof will be necessary.’ [Citation.] A denial . . . is not a statement of fact; it simply indicates that the responding party is not willing to concede the issue and, as a result, the requesting party must prove the fact at trial . . .”

The court reversed and remanding, holding, “denials of RFA’s are not admissible evidence in an ordinary case, i.e., a case where a party’s litigation conduct is not directly in issue. Thus, the trial court permitted examination of Li that was unfair and prejudicial to him, and erred in admitting those responses in evidence.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mina Miserlis is senior counsel at Tyson & Mendes LLP. She specializes in personal injury and high net worth insurance issues. Contact Mina at 858.263.4108 or mmiserlis@tysonmendes.com.

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