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The civil litigation death penalty



There's an old legal joke that goes: "If you're weak on the facts, pound the law. If you're weak on the law, pound the facts. If you're weak on both the facts and the law, pound the table."

Except the entrepreneurial trial bar has found an intermediate step: instead of pounding the table, pound the discovery requests. Persuade a judge that a discovery snafu was really a deliberate attempt at a cover-up, and get sanctions that prohibit the other side from defending itself. Because plaintiffs rarely have discovery obligations that are more than an infinitesmal fraction of a defendant's discovery obligations, this can be a profitable strategy.

The strategy is not new--I saw it myself first-hand in the 1990s defending GM, and wrote a piece about a trial where John Edwards successfully used a variant. But as discovery gets more and more complex due to emails, voicemails, and instant-messaging, it becomes easier for the discovery snafu to happen, and it becomes harder for judges to distinguish between good-faith mistakes and bad-faith withholding of documents. You may recall a famous example in Florida where Morgan Stanley was precluded from introducing evidence about a transaction involving Sunbeam before the appellate court threw out the entire case.

A recent example of this sort of gamesmanship is going on now in Florida where a group of lawyers representing Ecuadorian shrimp farmers came up with a brand new implausible theory of their case--now alleging that runoff from a formulation of a Benlate fungicide that stopped being used in 1991 is what caused their damages in the mid-to-late 1990s, all so they can claim to a judge that DuPont's failure to produce documents about this marginally relevant formulation (which was effectively identical to the other formulations, except it included two inert ingredients) deserved sanctions. And sure enough, the court ordered a civil death penalty: all of DuPont's defenses have been stricken, even though there is no scientific evidence that fungicide runoff caused the virus that killed many Ecuadorian shrimp. (Aquamar S.A. v. DuPont, Case No. 97-020375 (Broward County, Fla.))

A similar case involving Goodyear and a civil death penalty sanction that resulted in a $30 million verdict is pending in the Nevada Supreme Court.

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Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

 

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.