In Gonsalves, a BMW salesman, Kenneth Gonsalves, sued defendant Ran Li after a 2008 incident that plaintiff claimed left him with back and neck pain that ultimately required surgery after less intrusive treatments failed to treat his symptoms. In the complaint, Gonsalves claimed that Li negligently accelerated into a turn at an unsafe speed thereby losing control of the vehicle and causing his injuries. Li denied liability, claiming that he lost control of the vehicle when Gonsalves told him to hit the "M" button, which enables the driver to program functions to suit individual preferences including engine response.
During trial, plaintiff called Li as an adverse party witness. Over the defense’s objection, plaintiff’s counsel examined Li in front of the jury as to why he declined to admit during discovery that at the time he began his turn, he was driving “too fast for the conditions.” Li responded “I stand by my admissions that I signed.” At the conclusion of Li’s testimony, the judge—over defense objection—admitted the full sets of the requests for admissions and special interrogatories that asked Li to explain any denials to the requests as well as Li’s responses to both into evidence. In closing argument, plaintiff’s counsel argued to the jury that defendant’s failure to admit in response to requests for admissions is evidence of Li’s failure to take responsibility for plaintiff’s injuries. The jury found in favor of plaintiff (awarding $200,000.00 in economic medical expense damages and $1,000,000.00 in noneconomic damages).
On appeal, the Court of Appeal stated that the use of responses to requests for admissions, other than admissions themselves, to impeach a party’s credibility is not permissible. The court took issue with the fact that Li was asked to explain “by memory and on the spot” and without the ability to consult with his attorney why he took a legal position. The panel found that the trial court permitted examination of Li which was unfair and prejudicial to him, and erred in admitting those responses into evidence. More generally, the Court of Appeal reaffirmed that “litigation conduct is not relevant evidence at trial in the ordinary case.”
In summary, the Court of Appeal held that a party's denials of requests for admissions are inadmissible at trial where a party's conduct in litigation is not in issue. It follows that a party's denials may not be the subject of cross-examination at trial.
The finding could have potentially significant implications. This decision brings to light the importance of requests for admissions and the caution to be taken when responding and the need to object to attempts to introduce discovery conduct at trial.
Diana P. Lytel
Co-Chair, General Liability Committee | Association of Southern California Defense Counsel