Richardson v. State

Decision Date01 March 2006
Docket NumberNo. 04-670.,04-670.
Citation130 P.3d 634,331 Mont. 231,2006 MT 43
PartiesClarice RICHARDSON, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. STATE of Montana, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Appellant: Lee Bruner, Donald C. Robinson, Poore Roth & Robinson, Butte, Montana.

For Respondent: Gary L. Walton, Butte, Montana.

Justice JAMES C. NELSON delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 Clarice Richardson (Richardson) filed a personal injury action against the State of Montana (State) in the District Court of the Second Judicial District, Silver Bow County. After the jury rendered a defense verdict and the court entered a Judgment in favor of the State, Richardson filed a Motion requesting either an amended judgment or a new trial based on the State's abuse of the discovery process. Alternatively, Richardson sought a new trial based on the District Court's inconsistent rulings on the admission of evidence and argument regarding subsequent remedial measures. Richardson now appeals from the District Court's denial of the Motion. We reverse and remand for entry of an order vacating the Judgment in favor of the State, and for entry of default judgment against the State on the issue of liability, as a sanction for its abuse of the discovery process. Additionally, we remand for further proceedings to determine damages.

¶ 2 While Richardson presents several arguments on appeal, we address only the following issue, which we find dispositive: Did the District Court err in denying Richardson's Motion to Amend the Judgment based on the State's conduct during discovery?

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶ 3 On October 26, 2001, Richardson attended a water aerobics class conducted in the pool at the Health, Physical Education and Recreation facility (HPER facility) on the campus of the Montana College of Technology located in Butte. Richardson was eighty-four years old at the time, and she attended the class along with other elderly participants. At the conclusion of the class, Richardson entered the women's locker room of the HPER facility where she fell on the smooth trowelled concrete floor and suffered a severe injury to her hip, requiring surgical reconstruction and months of rehabilitation.

¶ 4 In the fall of 2002, Richardson filed a Complaint against the State, which owns and operates the Montana College of Technology. She alleged, inter alia, that the State had left the locker room floor in an "unrepaired, unmarked, dangerous condition," ignoring the high probability that she would be injured as a result; that the State knew of this danger prior to her fall, but nonetheless failed to provide a warning or correct the danger; that she slipped and fell as a result of the State's failure to correct this dangerous condition and its failure to provide a warning; and that she suffered a severe injury as a result of the fall. Upon these contentions, Richardson sought recovery for her resulting medical expenses, as well as pain and suffering.

¶ 5 In April of 2003, Richardson served her first discovery requests on the State, seeking information regarding various subjects relevant to the lawsuit. Following the State's response, Richardson served her second discovery requests on the State on October 2, 2003. This included the discovery requests of primary importance in this appeal—an interrogatory and a request for production seeking information regarding other slip and fall accidents at the HPER facility. The other requests in this second stage of discovery primarily sought information regarding any warnings provided by the State about the floor in "the area of Plaintiff's fall," any protective measures which the State may have taken to prevent slip and fall injuries in that area, and information regarding the State's maintenance of the floor and the ventilation system in that area.

¶ 6 The State refused to answer all ten interrogatories in this second set of discovery requests, repeatedly claiming that Richardson was seeking irrelevant information, that the requests were not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, and that the requests were vague and ambiguous. Further, the State's counsel offered no legally recognized response to four of Richardson's six requests for production. Rather than answering or objecting to these requests, as required by Rule 34(b), M.R.Civ. P., the State simply labeled them as "Not applicable," providing no further explanation.

¶ 7 Richardson then sent a letter to the State, requesting an adequate response. After the State again refused to answer, Richardson filed a Motion to Compel Discovery in February of 2004, asking the District Court to require that the State provide answers, and seeking sanctions against the State.

¶ 8 Thereafter, while still withholding the information regarding other falls, the State filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing Richardson could not demonstrate that the State should have anticipated her injury. The State also filed a Motion in Limine seeking to prevent Richardson from making various arguments regarding the State's installation of "grip strips" in the HPER facility. In its brief supporting this Motion, the State mentioned that it had begun installing "grip strips" in the HPER facility "shortly before Richardson's fall following a reported slip by another patron." The brief provided no details regarding this incident. Nonetheless, the State's counsel continued to withhold the information regarding other falls, maintaining, inter alia, that it was not relevant and not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.

¶ 9 In its brief opposing Richardson's Motion to Compel Discovery, the State attacked Richardson's numerous requests seeking information about "the area of Plaintiff's fall," asserting that the term "area" rendered the requests too vague and ambiguous to answer. At the hearing on Richardson's Motion, held on April 12, 2004, the State again argued that the term "area" was ambiguous. Additionally, the State continued to contest Richardson's requests for information regarding other falls. Eventually, however, the State's counsel voluntarily conceded during his argument that he could disclose the information regarding other falls in the women's locker room.

¶ 10 The District Court stated that Richardson's requests could have been more specific, but ultimately characterized the conflict as a dispute over "little nuances" and concluded "All the questions have to be answered. There's no question about that." Specifically addressing Richardson's requests for information regarding other falls in the HPER facility, the court stated that this information was discoverable and reminded counsel that a ruling on the admissibility of such evidence would be made at trial. Finally, in ordering the State to provide answers, the court offered to consider any objections regarding particular requests which the State considered "not answerable." Despite its previous claims that Richardson's requests were "vague and ambiguous," the State did not respond to this offer.

¶ 11 The next day, the District Court issued an Order granting Richardson's Motion to Compel Discovery, but denying her request for sanctions. This Order required Richardson to re-serve her discovery requests with "more clarity," but provided no specific instruction in this regard. Finally, the Order required the State to respond to Richardson's discovery requests within ten days of service.

¶ 12 On April 19, 2004, Richardson reserved her discovery requests on the State. In these requests, Richardson replaced the phrase "the area of Plaintiff's fall" with "the women's locker room." As for Richardson's interrogatory and request for production seeking information regarding other falls, she re-served these requests without amending them, in accordance with the District Court's comments prompting the State to provide the information which Richardson had originally requested.

¶ 13 Richardson received the State's responses on May 7, 2004. This time, the State provided answers to most of Richardson's requests. However, in direct violation of the District Court's Order, the State did not answer Richardson's interrogatory and request for production seeking information regarding other falls in the HPER facility. Once again, Richardson's counsel contacted the State's counsel, seeking answers. While still withholding the information regarding other falls, in violation of the court's Order, the State filed a Motion on May 11, 2004, asking the court to exclude evidence and argument regarding other falls. In its supporting brief, the State asked that the court grant this Motion because, inter alia, Richardson's expert had not tested the other areas of the locker room floor where other women had fallen. On May 12, 2004, Richardson filed her Preliminary Pre-trial Conference Brief, informing the District Court that the State had not yet responded to her discovery requests regarding other falls.

¶ 14 Then, on May 13, 2004, over seven months after Richardson's initial request, over two months after discovery had closed, and a mere eleven days before trial, Richardson finally received a response to her originally submitted interrogatory and request for production regarding other falls at the HPER facility. This response disclosed that in addition to Richardson's fall, eight other falls had occurred in the HPER facility during the several years previous and subsequent to Richardson's fall. Five of these falls occurred in the women's locker room, resulting in hip and back injuries, among others.

¶ 15 Along with a brief description of these eight other falls and the resulting injuries, the State provided seven incident reports. Richardson informed the District Court that "[t]he documents provided were poor copies, and legible copies had to then be requested of the...

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