Discovery Screw-Up Not Enough To Sustain Negligence Claim – 7th Cir.

Nixing an $8M Federal jury verdict, the Seventh Circuit recently held, among other things, that a discovery rule violation cannot undergird a negligent misrepresentation claim.

The plaintiffs in Turubchuk v. Southern Illinois Asphalt Company, 958 F.3d 541 (7thCir. 2020), twice sued a joint venture consisting of two paving contractors for personal injuries sustained in a 2005 traffic accident.  The first lawsuit, sounding in negligence, settled for $1MM, the amount plaintiff believed was the maximum available insurance coverage based on the defendant’s for the JV defendant’s attorneys’ pretrial discovery disclosures.

When the plaintiffs learned that the $1MM coverage cap only applied to the joint venture entity and not to the venture’s component companies, they sued again.  This second suit alleged fraud and negligent misrepresentation – that the defendant’s counsel misrepresented its insurance coverage limits.  Plaintiffs eventually went to trial only on their negligent misrepresentation claim.

This second suit culminated in the jury’s $8MM-plus verdict.  Defendant appealed citing a slew of trial court errors.

Reversing, the Court first considered the effect of Defendant’s erroneous Rule 26 disclosure.   Under Illinois law, an actionable negligent misrepresentation claim requires proof of a legal duty on the person making the challenged statement to convey accurate information.

The Plaintiffs alleged the Defendant’s duty was found in the disclosure requirements of Rule 26 – the Federal rule governing pre-trial witness and document disclosures.  The Court found no case authority that grounded a negligence duty in a federal procedural rule.  Instead, the Court noted, cases from the 9thCircuit and 7thCircuit held just the opposite and further opined that discovery rules are “self-policing:” a discovery violation subjects the violator to sanctions under Rules 26 and 37.

The 7thCircuit also ruled that the District Court erred in finding as a matter of law (on pretrial summary judgment and in-limine orders) that defendant breached its duty to plaintiffs and that plaintiffs justifiably relied on the representations.

Whether a defendant breaches a legal duty and whether a plaintiff reasonably relies on a representation are natural fact questions. Here, on the existence of a legal duty prong, there were a plethora of unanswered questions – i.e. what information did the attorney have at his disposal when plaintiff made a $1MM policy limits (or so he thought) demand before discovery even started? – that raised possible disputed fact questions that are normally jury questions.  The District Court’s pre-trial ruling on these issues hamstrung the defendant’s efforts to challenge whether defendant’s counsel acted negligently. [15]

Another trial court error stemmed from the non-reliance clause contained in the written release that settled the Plaintiffs’ first negligence lawsuit.  A non-reliance clause will normally foreclose a future fraud suit since reliance is one of the salient fraud elements.

That said, Illinois case law is in flux as to whether a non-reliance clause precludes a later fraud action.

In addition, whether reliance is justified in a given fact setting is quintessentially a triable fact question involving what a statement recipient knew or could have learned through the exercise of ordinary prudence.  This case authority uncertainty coupled with the multiple fact issues endemic to the justifiable reliance inquiry made it improper for the District judge to make a per se, pre-trial finding that plaintiffs justifiably relied on the defendant’s counsel’s insurance coverage disclosure.

The evidence was also conflicting on whether the defendant entities even had a joint venture.  Whether or not defendants were a joint venture was integral to the amount of insurance available to settle Plaintiffs’ claims and so it impacted the causation and damages elements of plaintiffs’ negligent misrepresentation case.

A hallmark of a joint venture is joint ownership or control of a business enterprise. See http://paulporvaznik.com/joint-ventures-in-illinois-features-and-effects/6699. This created disputed fact questions that should have been decided by the jury.

Next, the Court overturned the jury’s finding that Plaintiffs’ established that Defendant’s attorney intended to induce Plaintiffs’ reliance on the amount of available insurance coverage. [The intent to induce reliance element was the only negligent misrepresentation element that went to the jury.]

Federal Rule of Evidence 602 requires a witness to testify based on personal knowledge.

However, there was no such testimony adduced at trial. Instead, the only trial evidence on this negligent misrepresentation element was  Plaintiffs’ counsel’s self-serving speculative testimony that defendant’s counsel misrepresented the available insurance coverage to induce Plaintiffs’ to accept a relatively paltry $1MM to settle the case. [21, n. 11]. Moreover, the District Court improperly excluded evidence of Plaintiff’s counsel’s credibility since he had previously surrendered his law license in lieu of disbarment for alleged acts of dishonesty, fraud or misrepresentation. See FRE 608.

In the end, the Court found there was insufficient evidence at trial for the jury to find that Defendant’s counsel intended to induce Plaintiffs’ reliance on the Rule 26 discovery disclosures of insurance coverage.

Afterwords:

A negligent misrepresentation claim cannot be premised on violation of a Federal discovery rule;

The court invades province of the jury when it rules on elements that are inherently fact-driven;

Evidence Rules 602 and 608 respectively limit a trial witness to testifying to matters of personal knowledge and allow an opponent to probe that witness’s credibility by delving into his/her reputation for truthfulness.

 

 

 

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Bielski Chapman, Ltd. representing businesses and individuals in business litigation, post-judgment enforcement, collections and real estate litigation.