Many California attorneys likely assume that you can use denials to requests for admission as admissible trial evidence. Plaintiff’s counsel in Gonsalvez v. Li, 2015 WL 164606 (Cal. Ct. App. Jan. 13, 2015) made the assumption, and it cost him a jury verdict of more that $1.2 million.
In a recent decision by the California Court of Appeal, the Court held that California’s discovery statutes do not permit use of a party’s denial or lack of admission in response to a request for admission as evidence at trial. Gonsalvez, 2015 WL 164606 at *7. In Gonsalvez, a BMW salesman, Kenneth Gonsalvez, sued defendant Ran Li after Li caused an accident during a BMW test drive, resulting in extensive injuries to Gonsalvez. At trial, plaintiff’s counsel questioned Li about his qualified denials to various requests for admission, including a request that he admit that he was “driving too fast for the conditions.” Plaintiff’s counsel, over defense counsel’s objections, again cited to Li’s qualified denials in his closing argument, and the jury returned a verdict of more than $1.2 million in Gonsalvez’s favor.
On appeal, Li’s counsel argued that the trial court erred in permitting plaintiff’s counsel to examine Li about his negative responses to Gonsalvez’s requests for admission. The Court agreed with Li’s counsel, vacating the judgment and remanding the case to the trial court. After noting a “surprising paucity of relevant authority” on the topic, the Court highlighted that the relevant discovery statues only explicitly “provide that admissions in response to RFA’s are binding on the party at trial.” Id at *5 (emphasis in original); see also Cal. Civ. Proc. Code section 2033.410. Based on this language, and an analysis of authority in other jurisdictions, the Court ultimately held that “denials of RFA’s are not admissible evidence in an ordinary case, i.e., a case where a party’s litigation conduct is not directly in issue.” Gonsalvez, 2015 WL 164606 at *7.
This case serves as an important reminder to litigators to flush out denials to requests for admission before trial. Whether through special interrogatories, depositions, or even meet and confer correspondence, litigators should be sure to get to the bottom of RFA denials before it is too late.