Court Imposes Sanctions on Parties for Willful Violations of Discovery Rules

16 Oct 2017

Learn more about eDiscover from reading our blog postsIn Camecia v. Cooley, No. 74048-2-1, (Wash. Ct. App. Div. I, 2017), the Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1, upheld a lower court’s imposition of sanctions for willful violations of discovery rules.

On June 19, 2006, Susan Camicia (“Camecia”) hit a wooden bollard while riding her bicycle on the I-90 Trail in the City. The accident left her a quadriplegic. Mercer Island Police Officer Ryan Parr (“Parr”) responded and photographed the scene on the day of Camicia’s accident. The following day, the City hired Andrew Cooley (“Cooley”) to defend it against potential personal injury claims arising from Camicia’s accident. Cooley is an experienced defense attorney and has practiced law for over thirty years. Cooley was involved in Camicia’s case from its beginning.

Camicia sued the City in August 2007. In October 2007, she served her first discovery requests on the City. The City’s responses did not indicate that it was withholding any information responsive to Camicia’s discovery requests. City officials knew, since before Camicia’s accident, that records of bicycle accidents, including bike-bollard collisions, were kept by the City’s Fire Department. Despite knowing this, neither the City nor Cooley searched for records of other bicycle accidents responsive to Camicia’s discovery requests in the City’s Fire Department. The trial court found that Cooley strategically ignored looking at Fire Department records. Nor was a complete review made of the Police Department, City Clerk’s or City Attorney’s files or records where they should have known that responsive information might be located.

The City and Cooley did not disclose records of other bicycle accidents or safety concerns in its response to Camicia’s initial discovery requests. The photos that Officer Parr took of the scene on the day of Camicia’s accident also were not produced in the City’s October 2007 discovery responses. These photos were not produced to Camicia until May 6, 2009, after Cooley had deposed Camicia twice and all but one of Camicia’s expert witnesses. After Camicia issued her first discovery requests, the City destroyed claims and complaints that were potentially responsive to Camicia’s requests. The Deputy City Clerk testified that the destruction was in accordance with the record-retention policy of the Washington State Archives.

On May 6, 2015, in response to concerns that the City had not responded to Camicia’s initial discovery requests, the trial court judge issued a broad discovery order. The order required the City to produce all of its records of other bicycle accidents, including bike-bollard collisions, on its streets and bicycle trails from 1997-2014. The City produced hundreds of records of other bicycle accidents, claims, complaints, and related safety concerns responsive to Camicia’s discovery requests. The trial was delayed until October of 2015.

Camicia moved for discovery sanctions. The lower court found that the City’s failure to respond fully to discovery was willful.  The court found further that the City’s and its defense counsel’s responses to Camecia’s first discovery requests were false, misleading and evasive. The lower court determined a substantial monetary fine was necessary to deter future discover violations, and to punish. The lower court determined that $10,000 was a conservative figure to accomplish the goals of discovery sanctions.

On appeal, Cooley asserted that the trial court abused its discretion in concluding that the City and Cooley did not produce Fire Department records about bicycle injuries, that Cooley violated discovery rules based on the City’s destruction of tort-claim records, and that the trial court generally erred in imposing sanctions on Cooley.

This Court reviews the trial court’s imposition of sanctions for noncompliance with court orders or rules for abuse of discretion. A trial court abuses discretion if its order is unreasonable or based on untenable grounds. The intent of discovery is to facilitate the exchange of information between the parties without delay, excessive expense, and undue burden. And a spirit of cooperation and forthrightness during the discovery process is necessary. When the discovery process breaks down, sanctions are appropriate to deter, to punish, to compensate, and to educate.

In this case, Cooley claims he did not offer up some of the accident records because of HIPAA laws. However, Camicia did not request health records—but accident records. Even if Cooley believed that all records with the Fire Department were privileged, it was not up to him to unilaterally ignore the request.

Cooley argues next that the trial court abused its discretion in concluding that the City and Cooley engaged in sanctionable spoliation of evidence. However, the sanctions were not based on spoliation.  Cooley’s third issue asserts that the trial court abused its discretion when it sanctioned Cooley because Cooley’s responses to Camicia’s discovery requests were objectively reasonable and in good faith. This Court disagrees.
The trial court’s conclusion that the initial discovery responses were false, evasive, and misleading is supported by its findings of fact and was not an abuse of discretion.

Therefore the trial court did not abuse its discretion and this Court affirms.

ILS–Plaintiff ESI Discovery Experts