Wash. SC sees no reason for sanction

Jessica M. Karmasek May 4, 2011, 10:00am


OLYMPIA, Wash. (Legal Newsline) - The Washington State Supreme Court has reversed a trial court's ruling in favor of a travel center company because the lower court abused its discretion in imposing a discovery sanction.

The Court, in its opinion filed April 21, said the trial court failed to set forth the reason for its sanction on the record.

The state high court's ruling stems from plaintiff Maureen Blair's case against TravelCenters of America. According to its website, the company is the largest full-service travel center network providing products and services for professional truck drivers, expediters, RVers and motorists.

Blair was a long-haul trucker. In May 2003, she slipped and fell on a gasoline spill in a truck stop parking lot operated by TravelCenters.

The fall set off preexisting but asymptomatic degenerative arthritis in her hips.

Blair experienced increasing pain and decreasing mobility, culminating with a total hip replacement in 2005. Her condition eventually prevented her from returning to work as a trucker because of the long hours of sitting and the need to climb in and out of truck cabs.

On May 10, 2006, Blair and her husband filed a lawsuit against TravelCenters.

At issue is whether the trial court abused its discretion in excluding Blair's witnesses without making a record of the basis for its decision.

As a result of the witness exclusion, the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of TravelCenters and dismissed Blair's case with prejudice. An appeals court affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed both courts' rulings, concluding that the trial court did, indeed, abuse its discretion. Justice Debra L. Stephens authored the Court's majority opinion.

"Although a trial court generally has broad discretion to fashion remedies for discovery violations, when imposing a severe sanction such as witness exclusion, the record must show three things -- the trial court's consideration of a lesser sanction, the willfulness of the violation, and substantial prejudice arising from it," the justices explained.

Neither of the trial court's orders striking Blair's witnesses contained any findings as to willfulness, prejudice or consideration of lesser sanctions, nor does the record reflect these factors were considered, the Court said.

"For example, there was no colloquy between the bench and counsel. There was no oral argument before the trial court entered its orders, and the orders themselves contain bare directives," it wrote.

The Court said the appeals court also erred in concluding that the trial court did not need to set forth its reasons for striking the witnesses.

Given its conclusion that the trial court abused its discretion, the Court said "there remains no basis for the summary judgment order of dismissal and we reverse it."

In a concurring opinion, Justice James M. Johnson noted that the majority's opinion does nothing to limit a trial judge's ability to control the court's docket, manage litigation, establish deadlines or hold parties accountable for failure to comply with the court's deadlines.

"The burden of effectively overseeing the efficient administration of justice in Washington's courts rests heavily on the shoulders of trial court judges," Johnson explained.

The Court's majority opinion, he said, does nothing to limit "the full panoply" of sanctions available to a trial court judge to control litigation in his or her courtroom.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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