CAUTION: Unreasonable Denials of Requests for Admission Can Prove Costly

In Grace v. Mansourian, (filed 8/17/2015, order published 9/15/2015, No. G049590) the Fourth District Court of Appeal held a defendant’s denials of plaintiff’s requests for admission were unjustified given the substantial contrary evidence at the time the denials were made. As such, the plaintiff was entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in proving the matters improperly denied by the defendant.

Plaintiff Timothy Grace was driving his vehicle when he was struck by a vehicle being driven by defendant, Levik Mansourian. After the crash, a witness reported to investigating police officers that Mansourian drove into the intersection on a red light. Mansourian told officers he had entered the intersection when the light was yellow. The officers’ report concluded Mansourian was at fault.

After filing suit, Plaintiff served requests for admission to Mansourian seeking multiple admissions. Among other things, Plaintiff requested that Mansourian admit he ran the red light, that such conduct was negligent, and that it was the actual and proximate cause of the resulting collision. Mansourian denied all requests for admission, stating that he recalled having entered the intersection while facing a yellow light.

Plaintiff designated an accident reconstruction expert. Mansourian failed to depose the expert, and did not designate any liability expert of his own. At trial, the percipient witness testified that she observed Mansourian enter the intersection on a red light. She testified that after the accident, she said “you ran the right light” to Mansourian, and that Mansourian responded asking “I ran the red light?” The witness responded “yes you did” and Mansourian did not respond. In addition, Plaintiff’s accident reconstruction expert testified that Mansourian’s actions caused the collision. The only evidence offered by Mansourian, on the liability issue, was his own testimony to the effect that he believed he entered the intersection when the light was yellow.

The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff. Plaintiff then moved for nearly $200,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure § 2033.420. That Section provides for an award of attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by a party who proves an issue after an opposing party denies a request for admission regarding that same issue without reasonable grounds for believing the party could prevail on the issue at trial.

The trial court denied Plaintiff’s motion, and Plaintiff appealed. The Court of Appeal reversed, in part, holding that Mansourian’s denial of the requests for admission, on the liability issues, was unreasonable because Mansourian did not have a reasonable ground to believe he would prevail on that issue at trial. The Court premised its ruling on the fact that eyewitness testimony, the police report, Plaintiff’s expert, and Mansourian’s own failure to deny the witness’ statements immediately after the accident, demonstrated the existence of substantial evidence showing Mansourian was liable and caused the accident.

Accordingly, Mansourian’s denials of the requests for admission were improper because the substantial contrary evidence was known by Mansourian at the time the denials were made. Moreover, Mansourian failed to designate a liability expert, or to even depose Plaintiff’s expert to attempt to undermine his testimony. The known evidence demonstrated that there was no reasonable ground to believe Mansourian would prevail on the issue of liability. The Court remanded the matter to the trial court to determine the extent of attorneys’ fees and costs to be recovered.

This decision is a stern reminder to parties responding to requests for admission. It demonstrates that a denial of a request for admission is improper where there exists “substantial contrary evidence” at the time the denial is made. Such an improper denial may expose the party to costs and attorneys’ fees that are incurred by a party in proving the matters that are denied. Of course, when it is a plaintiff who unreasonably refuses to admit an issue, defense counsel can use this opinion to their advantage.

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September 17, 2015