Ford Motor Co. v. Conley

CourtSupreme Court of Georgia
Citation757 S.E.2d 20,294 Ga. 530
Decision Date24 February 2014
Docket NumberNo. S13A1601.,S13A1601.
PartiesFORD MOTOR CO. v. CONLEY et al.

294 Ga. 530
757 S.E.2d 20

CONLEY et al.

No. S13A1601.

Supreme Court of Georgia.

Feb. 24, 2014.

[757 S.E.2d 23]

Benjamin Edgar Baker, Jr., Dana Taunton, Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis Miles, Montgomery, Andrew Woodruff Jones, Andrew Woodruff Jones PC, Marietta, Robin Frazer Clark, Robin Frazer Clark, P.C., Atlanta, for appellee.

Christopher Scott Anulewicz, Michael J. Bowers, Balch & Bingham, LLP, Michael Roger Boorman, Audrey Kohn Berland, Huff, Powell & Bailey, LLC, Curtis Allen Garrett, Jr., Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, LLP, Atlanta, Adam H. Charnes, Kilpatrick Townsend, Winston–Salem, for appellant.

Chilton D. Varner, Stephen Boyce Devereaux, Susan Marie Clare, King & Spalding, LLP, Atlanta, Robert D. Ingram, Angela Harrison Smith, Moore, Ingram, Johnson & Steele, LLP, Marietta, for the amicus appellant.

Darren Wade Penn, Harris Penn Lowry & Delcampo, LLP, Atlanta, for amicus appellee.

NAHMIAS, Justice.

In December 2007, appellees Jordan and Renee Conley filed a product liability lawsuit against appellant Ford Motor Company in the State Court of Cobb County, based on a single-vehicle rollover accident that occurred in April 2006.1 After nearly two years of pretrial discovery and motions practice, the case went to trial on November 9, 2009. The jury, which was not qualified as to relationships with any of Ford's insurers, returned a verdict in favor of Ford on November 19. The trial court entered judgment on the verdict on November 30, 2009, and the Conleys did not file an appeal.

Based on information about Ford's insurers that came to light more than a year later, however, the Conleys filed a motion for new trial on July 15, 2011. On January 5, 2012, the trial court granted that motion. Ford filed an application for interlocutory appeal, which the Court of Appeals granted. The Court of Appeals judges divided evenly on the disposition of the appeal, so the case was transferred to this Court for decision. See Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. VI, Sec. V., Par. V. (“In the event of an equal division of the Judges [of the Court of Appeals] when sitting as a body, the case shall be immediately transferred to the Supreme Court.”). We heard oral arguments on September 21, 2013, and now, after careful consideration of the record and the contentions of the parties, we affirm the judgment of the trial court. In doing so, we reiterate the high hurdles that must be surmounted before an untimely, “extraordinary” motion for new trial may be granted, but we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ruling that the

[757 S.E.2d 24]

Conleys met that burden under the particular circumstances of this case.

1. Factual and Procedural Background
(a) The Original Conley v. Ford Motor Company Proceeding

On December 7, 2007, in their first set of interrogatories during discovery in the original proceeding, the Conleys requested information about Ford's insurers. There is no dispute that this was an appropriate topic for pretrial discovery. Georgia's civil discovery statute specifically says:

A party may obtain discovery of the existence and contents of any insurance agreement under which any person carrying on an insurance business may be liable to satisfy part or all of a judgment which may be entered in the action or to indemnify or reimburse for payments made to satisfy the judgment.

OCGA § 9–11–26(b)(2). In addition, under longstanding Georgia law, a plaintiff is entitled to obtain information about insurers who may cover a judgment against the defendant in order to determine whether the trial jury should be qualified as to relationships with such insurers. See OCGA § 15–12–135(a) (requiring the disqualification of all trial jurors who are “related by consanguinity or affinity to any party interested in the result of the case”); Shipman v. Johnson, 89 Ga.App. 620, 622, 80 S.E.2d 717 (1954) (“It is well settled that stockholders of an insurance company which carries liability insurance indemnifying a party to an action from a judgment against it in that case are ‘interested in the result of the case’ and not qualified to serve as jurors....”).

The insurance interrogatory that the Conleys posed, and Ford's answer in response, were as follows:

5. Please state whether or not Ford carried casualty or liability insurance to insure against the Subject Incident, [sic] if Ford carried casualty and/or liability insurance, please state for each coverage:

(a) The full name of the insuring company;

(b) The policy limits;

(c) The effective date of the policy; and

(d) The issuing agent.


Subject to and without waiving its objections, Ford states it has sufficient resources to cover any judgment which could be reasonably rendered in this case, if any.

Ford objects to this Interrogatory as it is overly broad and seeks information that is irrelevant and not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. To the extent this Interrogatory asks for more information, Ford objects as it seeks the discovery of confidential or proprietary information or documents.

In their first set of document requests, also sent on December 7, 2007, the Conleys similarly asked for Ford's insurance information:

10. All insurance agreements or policies under which any person or entity carrying on an insurance business may be liable to satisfy part or all of a judgment which may be rendered in this action or to indemnify or reimburse for payments made to satisfy any judgment.

Ford's response was essentially identical to its answer to Interrogatory No. 5: Ford said that it had sufficient resources to cover any reasonable judgment and then objected in the same way to the document request. Indeed, Ford objected, in the same sort of imprecise and formulaic manner, to almost all of the Conleys' discovery requests: 37 of Ford's 40 interrogatory answers contained objections, as did 68 of Ford's 70 responses to document requests, although as with Interrogatory No. 5 and Document Request No. 10, many of the discovery responses that included objections also included information that, to varying degrees, appeared to satisfy the request.

After receiving Ford's responses, the Conleys sent Ford a letter pursuant to Uniform Superior Court Rule 6.4(B) on March 11, 2008.2 The letter identified Interrogatory

[757 S.E.2d 25]

No. 5, among many others, as requiring further answer:

We specifically ask that Ford withdraw all general objections that it incorporates into each interrogatory. Ford has basically lodged an objection to each interrogatory.

Plaintiff also specifically requests that Ford withdraw objections to the following interrogatories and answer each within the scope of all vehicles for which information is requested, including Lincoln Aviators:

Interrogatories 1–3, 12, 14–16, 19, 22, 25, 26, 31–34, 37–39.

With respect to the following interrogatories we request that you withdraw the specific objections and answer the questions posed instead of providing self-serving answers that do not respond to the question posed. Additionally, Plaintiff requests that the responses include all vehicles outlined in the specific questions, including Lincoln Aviators.

Interrogatory 5–10, 12–15, 17 (as to all vehicles for which information is sought), 18, 20, 21, 23 (with respect to number 23—Ford states that it will produce certain documents, please confirm that these documents have been produced), 27–29, 36.

The Conleys' letter similarly asked that Ford “withdraw specific objections, respond to the requests as written, ... and/or fully respond to the following: Request for Production No. 3, 5–13, 15–20, 22–25, 27–47, 49, 51–53, 55, 56, 58–63, 65.”

In response, Ford sent a letter to the Conleys on March 21, 2008, which said:

Fords's answers and objections to Plaintiff's Interrogatories, including interrogatory nos. 1–3, 5–10, 12–23, 25–29, 31–34, and 36–39, are proper and appropriate under the Georgia Rules of Civil Procedure. Accordingly, Ford maintains its answers and objections to these requests.... In addition, your letter raises general, broad complaints regarding Ford's answers and objections but fails to address particular interrogatories with the specific grounds for your complaints. Such general, conclusory objections to Ford's answers do not provide Ford with sufficient information to meaningfully respond to each listed interrogatory.

Ford's letter included an essentially identical statement in response to the Conleys' request that Ford withdraw its objections and provide full responses to the document requests.

There was no further communication during discovery regarding Ford's insurance. The Conleys moved to compel Ford to respond to a few requests made later in the discovery process, but they did not file a motion to compel as to Interrogatory No. 5 or Document Request No. 10. Neither the Conleys nor Ford listed on the pretrial order that jurors should be qualified based on Ford's insurers. The Conleys also did not request that jurors be qualified based on Ford's insurers during jury selection; the jury questionnaire did not include any questions about potential jurors' relationships with insurance companies; and the trial court did not ask Ford about its insurers. The jury found in favor of Ford; the court entered judgment on the defense verdict; and the Conleys did not appeal.

(b) Young v. Ford Motor Company

On June 13, 2011, about 19 months after the judgment in the Conleys' case was entered, the case of Young v. Ford Motor Company began trial in Cobb County State Court before the same judge that had presided over the Conleys' case and with at least two of the same lawyers representing Ford. During discovery, the Youngs sent Ford two requests for insurance information, much as the Conleys had done. Ford responded in much the same way, saying, “Ford has sufficient resources to satisfy any judgment that reasonably could be expected to be awarded as damages in this action, if any”; Ford's responses in Young did not,...

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