"Form Interrogatories"

Exasperated JudgeThere are very few discovery cases that come out each year.  Usually they are are significant and involve privileges such as Coito v. Superior Court and Catalina Island Yacht Club v. Superior Court.  The newly reported case  Mitchell v. Superior Court (2015) 243 CA4th 269 is not one of those cases.  However, it does demonstrate a trial court’s error in excluding witnesses at trial, because it did not understand the definition of “INCIDENT” in the Judicial Council Form Interrogatories and what the standard is in issuing evidence sanctions regarding discovery abuse .

The case involved an auto accident in which plaintiff was injured.  Defendant served Judicial Council Form Interrogatories which included Interrogatory No. 12.1.   Interrogatory No. 12.1, which is  under the 12.0 Investigation—General Series, reads as follows:

12.1 State the name, ADDRESS, and telephone number of each individual

(a)  who witnessed the INCIDENT or the events occurring immediately before or after the INCIDENT;

(b) who made any statement at the scene of the INCIDENT;

(c) who heard any statements made about the INCIDENT by any individual at the scene; and

(d) who YOU OR ANYONE ACTING ON YOUR BEHALF claim has knowledge of the INCIDENT (except for expert witnesses covered by Code of Civil Procedure section 2034).

In her answers to this interrogatory, plaintiff only identified one witness.  Subsequently plaintiff identified three other witnesses whom she intended to call at trial to describe her how the accident affected her physically and how it impacted on her ability to do her job.  The trial court granted defendant’s motion in limine to exclude the testimony of the three witnesses for plaintiff’s failure to divulge their identity in the responses and supplemental responses to interrogatory 12.1.

The Second District Court of Appeals found that the trial court abused it’s discretion stating:

We read interrogatory No. 12.1 to seek the identities of percipient witnesses, witnesses who were at the scene immediately before or after the accident, those privy to statements by percipient witnesses to an accident and those who might have personal knowledge of the accident itself. The interrogatory does not seek the identity of witnesses—such as those whose testimony was excluded by the trial court—who may testify to the physical injuries or physical disabilities suffered by a plaintiff as a result of the accident. Our view that interrogatory No. 12.1 should be narrowly construed to refer to witnesses of the incident itself is bolstered by other form interrogatories, in particular Nos. 12.4 and 16.1, which distinguish between an “incident” and a plaintiff’s “injuries.”

Moreover, exclusion of a party’s witness for that party’s failure to identify the witness in discovery is appropriate only if the omission was willful or a violation of a court order compelling a response. (See Code Civ. Proc., §§ 2023.030, CCP 2030.290, subd. (c), 2030.300, subd. (e); see also Saxena v. Goffney (2008) 159 Cal. App. 4th 316, 333-335 [71 Cal. Rptr. 3d 469]; Thoren v. Johnston & Washer (1972) 29 Cal.App.3d 270, 273–275 [105 Cal. Rptr. 276].) Even if interrogatory No. 12.1 could be construed as a request for the identity of witnesses who would testify to post-accident physical disabilities and difficulties, there was no evidence that plaintiff’s failure to identify the witnesses was willful or that plaintiff contravened a court order to provide discovery.

Accordingly, it was error to impose an evidence sanction based on plaintiff’s failure to divulge the names of the three witnesses in response to interrogatory No. 12.1 or to defendant’s general request for supplemental responses to interrogatories.

HELPFUL HINT: Trial Departments are frequently removed from discovery battles and may not be familiar with the subtleties of the Discovery Act.  Nonetheless, this case and the Biles v. Exxon Mobil Corp (2004) 124 CA4th 1315 that I wrote about in “The Pitfalls of Bad Discovery Habits” are examples of trial courts’ misunderstanding of what a court needs to find before they can impose evidence sanctions. Keep both cases handy as they are important if you are ever opposing a motion in limine to exclude evidence that you didn’t produce during discovery.

iStock_000018564188Small 

John Podesta, an insurance coverage attorney in San Francisco, brings us his perspective on why the Form Interrogatories for Construction Defect should be used. John has handled hundreds of coverage cases  involving Construction litigation and other complex matters for over twenty years.  He is a nationally known speaker on Insurance Coverage issues in Construction and has written several articles on the subject.  He is also the author of the insurance Interrogatory 304.1 of Construction Litigation Form Interrogatories.

*********************************

It is generally recognized that construction defect cases are some of the most expensive, and complicated, cases being litigated in California.  I have personally been involved in cases with more than 75 payors contributing to a settlement, including contractors, insurers, and sureties.  I have witnessed them from the beginning of the modern Special Master programs in the 1980’s through the single assignment Special Masters (both mediator and case management/discovery referee) and the dual reference (where the case manager/discovery referee and the mediator are separated) and cases with no outside supervision and the case is handled per the CCP.  In all these cases, the same question is asked by the carriers:  “How can we get these cases evaluated and resolved quicker and less expensively?”  And the related question: “If this is a case that needs to be tried how can we get to that decision point as soon as possible?Continue Reading Why Every Insurance Carrier Should Insist That The New Construction Form Interrogatories Be Used

iStock_000000721209XSmall.jpgIn May of 2007, I received a phone call from Peter Glaessner, a member of the Discovery Committee and Civil and Small Claims Committee of the Judicial Council.  He asked me if I could put together Judicial Council Form Interrogatories for construction litigation. I told him that I probably could get him a working draft by the end of that summer.  Little did I know how extensive of a project this would be.

I began the process by creating a statewide committee with three plaintiff counsel, three developer counsel, three subcontractor counsel, two insurance coverage counsel, one architects and engineer counsel and one public entity counsel.  Each of these members are prominent lawyers in construction litigation and many have spoken at West Coast Casualty’s Annual Construction Defect Seminar.

Two years and ten drafts later we submitted our final version of the Form Interrogatories– Construction Litigation to the Discovery Committee of the Civil and Small Claims Advisory Committee. The final draft had approximately 90% consensus with various members having issues with certain parts.  The goal of the final version of the Form Interrogatories–Construction Litigation was to be all-inclusive with the idea that once vetted through the Civil and Small Claims Committee and the comment period some of the proposed interrogatories may be removed.

In 2011, the Judicial Council formed a second committee to work on the final version of the Form Interrogatories–Construction Litigation.  Included in that committee were two construction litigation attorneys from Consumer Attorneys of California, two construction litigation attorneys from California Defense Council, and myself.  The five of us worked for more than six months negotiating, rewriting and finalizing the final draft, which was provided to the Civil and Small Claims Committee of the Judicial Council in November of 2011.

Five years, twenty drafts and hundreds and hundreds of non-billed attorney hours later, the Civil and Small Claims Committee of the Judicial Council is recommending the Form Interrogatories – Construction Litigation be adopted and has invited the public to comment.

The Civil and Small Claims Committee states in their Invitation to Comment that:

The proposed Form Interrogatories—Construction Litigation (form DISC-005) will follow the same format as the other Judicial Council form interrogatories.  The instructions at the beginning are essentially the same as in the other form interrogatories, with two exceptions.

First, the use of the form will be limited to smaller cases, except with leave of court. In residential construction cases, the proposed form interrogatories are not intended for use in actions that involve more than five residential units, and in complex cases, they are not to be used until after a court has found good cause. Specific comments are requested on these limitations (see the box at the end of this invitation).

Second, the instructions recognize that in many construction cases a document depository is created, so they permit responses in the form of identifying those documents in such a depository that contain the information sought in an interrogatory.

Other notable aspects of the proposed form interrogatories include the following:

  • As with other civil form interrogatories, parties will be able to attach additional individually crafted interrogatories should they wish.
  • The definitions in the construction form interrogatories parallel those in the general form interrogatories but add terms specific to construction litigation. In addition, because the use of “Incident” as a defined term would be confusing in these interrogatories, that term has been replaced with “Construction Claim” and “Construction Defect Claim.”
  • The proposed construction interrogatories are intended to serve as a single integral set of interrogatories rather than as a discrete set of specialty interrogatories for use in addition to or as a supplement to other form interrogatories. Hence, they include interrogatories on several topics included in the general civil form interrogatories, with some tailored to more specifically address construction cases.
  • None of the questions concerning personal injury from the general form interrogatories are included in the proposed form. Such interrogatories would only infrequently be applicable in a construction case, and the committee concluded that their presence in this set would unnecessarily complicate the form.

The Invitation to Comment also is requesting comments on the following:

  • Does the proposal appropriately address the stated purpose?
  • Would the proposed form interrogatories be appropriate and helpful in construction litigation as limited in the instructions? That is, in residential construction cases involving no more than five units, in commercial construction cases not deemed complex, and in complex construction cases only with permission of the court?
  • Should the instructions allow the form interrogatories for use in somewhat larger residential construction cases as well? Would they be appropriate and useful in actions involving up to 10 residential units? Would some other number—higher or lower—be more appropriate?

Should the defined terms remain formatted as in the attached, in boldface and all capital letters or, in order to make the form more readable, be changed to just boldface, without the capitals? An example of such formatting of defined terms can be seen in Form Interrogatories – Family Law (form FL-145).

I want to thank each of the committee members for their hard work and dedication Despite their differences with one another on various issues, as a whole we worked hard as a team and were proud of our end product.  I also want to thank Anne Ronan, staff Attorney for the Judicial Council who too worked endless hours on this project.  Most of all I want to thank the Civil and Small Claims Committee for recognizing all the hard work the attorneys have dedicated to making the Form Interrogatories–Construction Litigation a reality by recommending the interrogatories and inviting the public to comment.

If you have any questions regarding the Form Interrogatories–Construction Litigation, please do not hesitate to contact me.