ALERT: New Trial Granted In Rollover Case For Failure To Adequately Disclose Evidence Of Insurance In Discovery.

The Georgia Supreme Court ordered a new trial after a jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Co. in a product liability case because Ford failed to adequately disclose its insurance coverage during discovery.  Ford responded to discovery requests and interrogatories about the nature and extent of its insurance coverage with objections that the discovery was both irrelevant and overbroad.  Ford further responded that it had more than enough resources to satisfy any judgment that might be rendered.  Nineteen months after Ford prevailed in that case, it was determined in a subsequent case that Ford had six insurers who were potentially responsible.  The plaintiffs in the original case filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the jury in their case had not been properly qualified as to Ford’s insurers, as is required under Georgia law. The trial court agreed, finding that Ford’s concealment was “willful” and “intentional,” and granted a new trial. On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court found that if Ford had simply rested on its objection, the plaintiffs would not have been misled.  However, the court found that the plaintiffs reasonably relied on Ford’s “willfully” misleading statement in its substantive answer.  As a result, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s ruling that the plaintiffs were entitled to a new trial because the plaintiffs acted with due diligence to raise the claim that the jury should have been qualified relative to the potential insurers, and therefore raised the unrebutted presumption, under Georgia law, that the plaintiffs’ right to a competent and impartial jury was materially harmed. The court concluded its opinion by stating, “discovery is not supposed to be a game in which parties maneuver to hide the truth about relevant facts, and when a party does intentionally mislead its adversary, it bears the risk that the truth will later be revealed and that the judgment it obtained will be re-opened to allow a new trial based on the truth.” Ford Motor Co. v. Conley, No. S13A1601 (Ga. Feb. 24, 2014).

This case is a warning to all defense and in-house counsel that, in certain jurisdictions, seemingly routine discovery seeking insurance information should be taken more seriously.  Many would characterize Ford’s response as not affirmatively misleading that Ford had “no insurance,” as it did not expressly so state.  However, plaintiffs convinced the court that they reasonably interpreted Ford’s response as meaning that Ford was self-insured.  The Georgia Supreme Court agreed and found that Ford had intended its response to be understood that way.  The lesson here is clear:  in jurisdictions where a party’s insurance is discoverable, disclose the potentially available insurance, even if the party has sufficient assets to cover the judgment.  While this outcome may be based on the unique aspects of Georgia law, the law may be similar in other states and is constantly evolving in ways that could endanger your defense.

This warning is not unique to insurance coverage issues, but to all discovery in which objections are accompanied with limited answers that attempt to answer without necessarily providing a full, substantive response.

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