E-Alert Case Updates
Circuit Court Properly Struck Deemed Admissions and Prohibited Evidence of the Existence of Defendant’s Insurance
William Chaffman v. Yuri V. Estrada-Bernales
In a recent opinion, the Court of Special Appeals held that the Circuit Court properly struck Requests for Admissions of Facts deemed admitted as a result of late responses, and properly prohibited the Plaintiff’s attorney from introducing evidence of the Defendant’s liability insurance. Plaintiff, William Chaffman, was stopped at a red light when his SUV was rear-ended by a vehicle driven by Defendant, Yuri Estrada-Bernales. Subsequently, Plaintiff began experiencing stiffness in his neck, lower back, and on the right side of his body. The pain worsened over the next months, and Plaintiff was treated by several physicians, chiropractors, and specialists in an attempt to alleviate the pain. Ultimately, he underwent a surgical procedure to address the pain, and he anticipated needing similar surgeries in the future. As a result, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Defendant seeking damages for what he classified as “severe and permanent . . . injuries to his mind, body and back.”
After the lawsuit was filed, but before Defendant received service of the Complaint, Plaintiff moved for summary judgment, arguing that Defendant admitted fault at the scene of the action. One (1) day later, Defendant was served with the Complaint. Eight (8) days after that, on March 6, 2013, Plaintiff mailed Defendant written discovery requests, including sixty-nine (69) requests for admissions. Among the requests were no less than twenty (20) requests seeking admissions as to the specific amount of damages suffered by Plaintiff. Defendant’s response to the request for admissions was due by April 12, 2013. Defendant filed his answer to the Complaint on April 8, 2013. On April 12, 2013, the Court denied Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.
On April 16, 2013, Plaintiff filed a second motion for summary judgment, this time arguing that Defendant’s failure to respond to the requests for admissions were deemed admitted pursuant to the Maryland Rules. Consequently, Plaintiff argued that Defendant had admitted all of the elements necessary for Plaintiff to establish his case. Defendant opposed the motion for summary judgment, and at that time served Plaintiff’s counsel with Defendant’s responses to the requests, which were then fourteen (14) days late. Defendant admitted that he owed Plaintiff a duty and that he had rear-ended Plaintiff, but denied all other requested admissions. In his opposition, Defendant argued that the majority of Plaintiff’s requests sought admission of ultimate issues of fact, invaded the purview of the jury, and thus were not properly the subject of a request for admission.
The Court granted Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment as to liability, finding that there was no genuine dispute that Defendant breached a duty he owed to Plaintiff, but did not make any finding as to damages. The Court held that it was unable to make such a finding at the summary judgment stage, as the amount of damages is “more often than not, a matter of opinion – not fact.” Consequently, a trial was held on the issues of causation and damages. Pertinently, at trial, Defendant did not offer a rebuttal expert to Plaintiff’s expert witness on the issue of causation because, in the words of Defendant’s counsel during his closing argument, it would have been a waste of Defendant’s money. After Defendant’s counsel’s statement, Plaintiff’s counsel requested that he be permitted to tell the jury that it would be Defendant’s insurer, not Defendant himself, who would pay for a rebuttal expert. The Court denied the request. On the strength of evidence indicating that the collision occurred at a speed of 5-10 miles per hour, the jury found that Plaintiff was not, in fact, injured by Defendant, and accordingly awarded Plaintiff no damages. Plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, Plaintiff first argued that, pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-424(a), Defendant’s failure to timely respond to the requests for admission resulted in the requests being deemed admitted, and that the circuit court therefore erred in not entering summary judgment as to causation and damages. The Court of Special Appeals disagreed. It noted that the purpose of a request for admissions was “to avoid the necessity of preparation, and proof at the trial, of matters which either cannot be or are not disputed.” In previous cases, the Court had held that the Circuit Court had broad discretion in handling a situation in which a response to a request for admission was untimely or insufficient. Moreover, federal courts have expressly held that admissions brought about by a late response to a request for admissions should be avoided if it would assist in adjudicating the merits of a case and the party who requested the admission would not be prejudiced. In this case, the deemed admissions dealt with core issues that were in dispute, and Plaintiff was not prejudiced through the striking of the deemed admissions. Under these circumstances, to have deemed the admissions of fact admitted would have been an abuse of discretion. Moreover, the Court was satisfied that Defendant’s opposition to Plaintiff’s second motion for summary judgment implicitly requested the deemed admissions be struck, and thus satisfied the requirement that a party must move to strike deemed admissions.
Plaintiff next contended that the Circuit Court erred in refusing to permit him to inform the jury that Defendant’s insurer would have paid for a rebuttal expert on the issue of causation. The Court disagreed. Emphasizing that Maryland adheres to the policy that evidence of insurance should not be presented to a jury, the Court was persuaded that Defendant’s counsel’s single ambiguous reference to the cost of such an expert did not open the door to evidence of Defendant’s insurance. The statement was primarily intended to convey to the jury that there would have been no point in undertaking any cost for an expert because there was simply no evidence that Plaintiff was injured in the accident. Under these circumstances, it was not an abuse of discretion for the Circuit Court to prohibit Plaintiff’s counsel from telling the jury about Defendant’s insurance. Finding no error, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict.
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