Not coming clean in responses to information requests before trial has come back to haunt a trucking company and its insurance carrier in a Georgia truck accident case.
Every Georgia personal injury case has a period of time before trial where the people involved in the lawsuit are permitted to exchange requests for information relevant to the case. During this phase of a case, known as discovery, each side under court rules is obliged to answer the questions put to them to the extent they have the information, as well as produce requested documents that are in their possession.
The failure to be forthcoming and cooperative can lead to sanctions imposed by a judge, as the trucking company recently learned. In fact, the trucking company’s misdeeds were so egregious that it lost the case even before trial.
In a nutshell, the trucking company, its insurance carrier and the driver of the truck, each of whom were sued for the serious and permanent injuries suffered by the driver of the passenger vehicle involved in the accident, failed to meet their discovery obligations by:
- lying in numerous responses to discovery questions (known as interrogatories) and in responses to requests for documents;
- destroying crucial material evidence;
- skirting court rules related to subpoenas; and
- attempting to prevent discovery of pertinent and potentially damaging evidence.
A particularly damning action by the trucking company was its destruction of vital crash data on the truck’s computer system. This data is crucial to establishing truck speed, engine speed, braking information, the amount of accelerator involvement, and whether the cruise control was activated. The trucking company initially denied the truck even had computer data related to the accident.
The company was aware of the possibility of litigation within days of the accident when it received a letter from the attorney representing the injured driver of the passenger vehicle. The letter requested the company to preserve important evidence, including the computer data, personnel records of the driver of the company’s truck and other relevant documents, as well as the condition of the truck immediately after the accident.
Despite this early awareness of the likelihood of a lawsuit, the trucking company indicated in its discovery responses that many of the requested documents had been destroyed pursuant to its policy of retaining documents for six months only. It also said that it had made repairs to the truck within five days of the accident before the injured driver’s attorney had a chance to inspect it.
The trial court judge sanctioned the trucking company and other defendants by striking their answer to the complaint as well as their counterclaim that the driver of the passenger vehicle negligently caused the accident.
The Georgia Court of Appeals recently upheld the sanctions, saying there was ample evidence of discovery stonewalling by the defendants to justify the penalty imposed by the trial court judge.
The accident at issue occurred on Interstate 20 in Greene County between Atlanta and Augusta. The driver of the passenger vehicle, a pickup truck, lost control of his vehicle, then swerved onto the shoulder of the highway before stopping in the right eastbound lane of the interstate. The tractor trailer owned by the trucking company soon collided with the pickup, causing severe, permanent injuries to driver of the pickup.
The effect of the discovery sanctions is to deprive the defendants of their defenses and essentially establish liability for the accident. The only issue remaining for trial is the amount of damages to be awarded the injured driver.
The case is Howard v. Alegria.