Rullo v. General Motors Corp., 13315

Decision Date28 June 1988
Docket NumberNo. 13315,13315
Citation543 A.2d 279,208 Conn. 74
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesPaolo RULLO et al. v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION et al.

Syllabus by the Court

The plaintiffs sought damages for personal injuries they sustained in a motor vehicle accident allegedly caused by a defective front seat locking mechanism on an automobile manufactured by the named defendant, G Co. The jury returned a defendant's verdict, and the plaintiff appealed claiming that the trial court erred in permitting G Co. to introduce into evidence a videotape of field tests performed on the seat mechanism. The plaintiffs claimed that the existence of the tape had not been disclosed to them in a timely manner. Held:

1. The plaintiffs' claim that the trial court abused its discretion in rejecting their argument that they were unfairly surprised and prejudiced by G Co.'s late disclosure of the videotaped field tests was unavailing; the videotape was not used to advance a new theory of causation, there was an eleven day suspension in the trial during which the plaintiff's counsel and their experts reviewed the test data, and the plaintiffs did not request a continuance in the trial after the disclosure of the tape's existence.

2. The plaintiffs could not, under the circumstances here, prevail on their claim that the videotape should not have been admitted because of certain dissimilarities between the experimental conditions and the conditions of the accident; the experiments did not purport to be a reenactment of the accident but rather a demonstration of the force principles claimed by G Co.'s expert to have been the cause of a deformity discovered in the seat mechanism after the accident.

Jay H. Sandak, with whom was Catherine C. Ziehl, Stamford, for appellants (plaintiffs).

Joseph A. Moniz, with whom were Daniel L. Fitz-Maurice and, on the brief, Deborah S. Chang, Hartford, for appellee (named defendant).

Before PETERS, C.J., and HEALEY, SHEA, CALLAHAN and COVELLO, JJ.

COVELLO, Associate Justice.

The plaintiffs, Paolo Rullo, Natalina Rullo and Maria Rullo, instituted this action against the defendants, General Motors Corporation (General Motors) and Brady-Stannard Motors Company, Inc., for personal injuries sustained as the result of an automobile collision that took place on July 19, 1981. The gravamen of the Rullos' claim was that the front seat locking mechanism of their 1980 Oldsmobile automobile suddenly failed. This caused the seat to slide rearward thereby preventing the plaintiff, Paolo Rullo, the driver, from applying the brakes. This in turn caused their automobile to strike the rear of a vehicle directly in front of them and resulted in the plaintiffs' personal injuries. A jury found the issues for the defendant General Motors. 1

The plaintiffs appeal from the judgment against them that followed, contending that the trial court erred in permitting the introduction into evidence of videotapes of automotive field tests that: (1) were not timely disclosed to plaintiffs' counsel; and (2) were not shown to have the requisite similarity to the accident. We conclude that there was no abuse of the significant discretion that reposes in the trial court in connection with both of these matters and, therefore, find no error.

I

The plaintiffs claim first that the court erred in admitting the videotape of certain General Motors' tests because of their late disclosure to plaintiffs' counsel. Examination of the record discloses that the parties agreed that following the collision, the seat adjuster mechanism was bent, deformed and not operating properly. The plaintiffs contended that the force of the collision was inadequate to have caused the deformity and that the mechanism had been defective since they purchased the automobile. The defendant claimed, on the other hand, that it was the force of the collision itself that had bent the seat adjuster mechanism.

Both sides offered test results through the testimony of expert witnesses to assist the jury in dealing with the seat mechanism controversy. The chronology of the experts' involvement in the case is as follows:

September 27, 1984--The plaintiffs disclosed John Zamparo as their expert;

January 21, 1986--General Motors disclosed Jeffrey Pearson as its expert;

May 27, 1986--General Motors completed the deposition of Zamparo;

September 3, 1986--The plaintiffs deposed Pearson. He testified that no tests had been performed;

October 17, 1986--The plaintiffs disclosed Dr. Ralph Petricone as an additional expert;

November 4, 1986--General Motors' deposition of Petricone commenced. He disclosed for the first time that Zamparo had conducted force tests;

November 5, 1986--General Motors' motion in limine to preclude the testimony of Petricone was denied;

November 5, 1986--Jury selection began;

November 7, 1986--Pearson conducted the disputed tests at the General Motors laboratory;

November 10, 1986--General Motors completed Petricone's deposition November 12, 1986--Evidentiary phase of the trial began;

November 14, 1986--Zamparo testified for the plaintiffs. He disclosed that after he had been deposed by General Motors, he had conducted force tests on the seat adjuster mechanism. He disclosed the results of those tests;

November 19, 1986--General Motors disclosed to the plaintiffs the existence of the videotapes of its tests;

November 25, 1986--General Motors furnished the videotapes to the plaintiffs;

December 2, 1986--The plaintiffs' motion in limine to preclude the use of the videotapes was denied;

December 2, 1986--Trial resumed.

The plaintiffs argued to the trial court that General Motors had failed to disclose in a timely manner that tests had been conducted concerning the seat adjuster mechanism. They claimed a prejudicial breach of the continuing duty to disclose required by Practice Book § 232 2 inasmuch as they had previously requested by way of interrogatory the basis for the expert's opinion.

General Motors responded that the demonstrations had been conducted in answer to the plaintiffs' own late disclosure of Petricone as an additional expert and Petricone's "eve of trial" revelation that force tests had been conducted on the seat adjuster mechanism. The trial court rejected the plaintiffs' claim of unfair surprise and prejudice and allowed the introduction into evidence of the videotape demonstrations.

Practice Book § 231 authorizes the court to respond to a party's violation of a continuing duty to disclose by the entry of "such order[s] as the ends of justice require." Specifically, an order may "prohibit ... the party who has failed to comply from introducing designated matters in evidence."

Decisions on the entry of such sanctions rest within the sound discretion of the trial court. Filisko v. Bridgeport Hydraulic Co., 176 Conn. 33, 39-40, 404 A.2d 889 (1978). In reviewing a claim that this discretion has been abused " ' "the unquestioned rule is that 'great weight is due to the action of the trial court and every reasonable presumption should be given in favor of its correctness.' Dudas v. Ward Baking Co., 104 Conn. 516, 518, 133 A. 591 [1926]...." Ardoline v. Keegan, 140 Conn. 552, 555, 102 A.2d 352 [1954].' Camp v. Booth, 160 Conn. 10, 13, 273 A.2d 714 [1970]." iDiPalma v. Wiesen, 163 Conn. 293, 298, 303 A.2d 709 (1972). "[T]he ultimate issue is whether the court could reasonably conclude as it did. E.M. Loew's Enterprises, Inc. v. Surabian, 146 Conn. 608, 611, 153 A.2d 463 (1959)." Timm v. Timm, 195 Conn. 202, 207, 487 A.2d 191 (1985).

The videotape demonstrations served to confirm the General Motors' expert's previously disclosed opinion that the seat adjuster mechanism had been bent by the force of the collision. No new theory of causation was advanced by these demonstrations. Further, as the court correctly noted, following the disclosure of these tests, there was an eleven day suspension in the trial during which plaintiffs' counsel and their experts reviewed the defendant's test data.

Finally, there was no request for a continuance. "A continuance is ordinarily the proper method for dealing with a late disclosure. State v. Villafane, 171 Conn. 644, 669, 372 A.2d 82 (1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1106, 97 S.Ct. 1137, 51 L.Ed.2d 558 (1977), overruled in part on other grounds, State v. Stepney, 191 Conn. 233, 464 A.2d 758 (1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1084, 104 S.Ct. 1455, 79 L.Ed.2d 772, reh. denied, 466 U.S. 954, 104 S.Ct. 2163, 80 L.Ed.2d 547 (1984)...." State v. Barrett, 205 Conn. 437, 455, 534 A.2d 219 (1987). A continuance serves to minimize the possibly prejudicial effect of a late disclosure and absent such a request by the party claiming to have been thus...

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