In a routine personal injury case that may have significant impacts in California, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, ruled in Grace v. Mansourian (2015) DJDAR 10613 ("Grace case") that plaintiffs were entitled to significant attorney's fees in proving liability in a traffic intersection collision case.
As many are aware, the California Discovery Act includes a provision for Request for Admissions, which if unreasonably denied, permit the requesting party to recoup attorney's fees for Request for Admissions that are unreasonably denied. [Code of Civil Procedure Section 2033.420] In the Grace case, defendant Levik Mansourian ("Mansourian") drove into an intersection and hit a car driven by plaintiff Timothy Grace ("Grace"). Mansourian apparently told a traffic collision investigator, Linda Villelli, 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, Kathryn Napoli told Villelli that defendant had run the red light. A few weeks after the accident, Mansourian's insurance company recorded an interview with Napoli who said that the defendant had run a red light.
Subsequent to filing a personal injury action, plaintiff Grace served Request for Admissions on defendant Mansourian seeking admissions on negligence, causation and damages. Plaintiff's counsel asked the defendant to admit defendant failed to stop at a red light and that his failure to do so was negligent and was a substantial factor in causing the accident and plaintiff's Grace's injuries.
Defendant Mansourian, through counsel retained through his automobile liability insurer, denied the Request for Admissions as to liability (and also denied Requests for Admissions as to damages). The Requests for Admissions were denied as well in follow up discovery.
At trial, defendant Mansourian stuck to his story but was impeached in part as to what he was looking at when he drove into the intersection (there was an inconsistency in his deposition as to whether he was looking at the traffic signal and the road or just the road). The traffic investigator testified as did the eye witness. The lawyers for Mansourian did not present any expert witnesses as to liability. As relevant to this article, plaintiff Grace prevailed and was awarded more than $410,000 in damages including approximately $147,000 for medical expenses, $9,000 for lost earnings and $255,000 for pain and suffering (a separate award was also made to plaintiff's Grace's spouse for loss of consortium). Following trial, plaintiff Grace, arguing that defendant Mansourian unreasonably denied Requests for Admissions, filed a motion to recover expenses incurred in proving liability (and damages) and sought an award of almost $170,000 in attorney's fees and over $29,000 in costs. The trial court denied the motion concluding that defendant did have a reasonable basis to deny the requests.
On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed. The Court of Appeal noted that the defendant Mansourian did not offer any expert testimony as to liability nor any other evidence on the issue of liability other than defendant Mansourian's testimony, which was inconsistent. The Court of Appeal also noted that defense counsel, in opening statement, admitted that the defendant may have made a mistake. Based on that, the Court of Appeal ruled that the defendant's belief as to liability, however firmly held, was not reasonable and that he was liable for costs in proving liability. According to the Court of Appeal, the question was 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. The Court of Appeal ruled that, in light of substantial evidence that defendant had run the red light, it was not reasonable for him to believe that he would prevail. The Court of Appeal emphasized that it did not "quarrel" with the general proposition that the testimony of even one credible witness can be substantial evidence.
The Grace case is certainly important insofar as Requests for Admissions. This is so because the Court acknowledged that the testimony of even one credible witness can be substantial evidence, but held that, to justify denial of a Request for Admission, a responding party must have a reasonable basis to believe that he or she would prevail at trial, and not just a subjective belief.
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