General Liability Alert: Discovery Responses Denying Requests for Admission are Generally Inadmissible at Trial

In Gonsalves v. Li, Case No. A140284, the First Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal held that denials of Requests for Admission are not admissible in cases where a party’s litigation conduct is not directly in issue. In Gonsalves, plaintiff Kenneth Gonsalves filed a lawsuit against Ran Li for personal injuries he sustained in a motor vehicle accident. Gonsalves was a passenger in the vehicle driven by Li.

During discovery, Gonsalves asked Li to admit that at the time he began his turn, he was driving too fast for conditions. Li denied the Request for Admission on the grounds that he had insufficient information to admit the fact. At the time of trial, Li’s denial was received as evidence. Over Li’s objections, Gonsalves was also permitted to cross-examine Li about his denials of Requests for Admission. The jury awarded Gonsalves $1,208,642.86. Li appealed on the grounds that the trial court erred by entering Li’s denials of Requests for Admission into evidence, and by permitting Gonsalves to cross-examine Li concerning those denials.

Any matter admitted in response to a request for admission is conclusively established against the party making the admission. (Cal. Code Civ. Pro. ยง 2033.410 (emphasis added).) If a party fails to admit the truth of a matter when requested to do so, and the requesting party thereafter proves the truth of that matter, the requesting party may move for an order requiring the denying party to pay the reasonable expenses incurred in making that proof.

In holding the denials inadmissible, the Court reasoned that Requests for Admission are intended to narrow the issues and facts to be proved at trial. Thus, a denial of a Request for Admission is not evidence or a statement of fact, but “simply indicates that the responding party is not willing to concede the issue,” and “the requesting party must prove the fact at trial.” Further, while Section 2033.410 specifically provides that an admission conclusively establishes a fact for purposes of trial, and Section 2030.410 permits a party’s answer to an interrogatory to be used at trial, the Legislature did not similarly provide for the admissibility of a denial of a Request for Admission. Finally, the Court noted that cross-examination of Li on the Requests for Admission in front of a jury improperly deprived Li of the ability to consult with his attorney as to why he took a certain position in responding to Requests for Admission.

The Court of Appeal therefore held that a party’s denials of Request for Admission are inadmissible at trial where a party’s conduct in litigation is not in issue. It follows that a party’s denials may not be the subject of cross-examination at trial.

Gonsalves illustrates the importance of a party’s responses to Requests for Admission. Requests for Admission are a powerful discovery tool because an admission conclusively establishes a fact for purposes of trial. Denials, however, are not evidence, and have no place in a party’s proof supporting a cause of action or affirmative defense. The Court reinforced the notion that a party’s factual denials are admissible for purposes of awarding sanctions to the requesting party who later proves the denied facts to be true. Gonsalves illustrates the caution with which a party should respond to Requests for Admission, and affords parties protection from potentially inflammatory and irrelevant cross-examination at the time of trial.

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January 16, 2015