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Court upholds wrongful death verdict against tire company

The collective might of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a half-dozen other pro-business groups failed to convince the Nevada Supreme Court that Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. deserves another day in court.

In denying a request for another hearing, the court in an opinion published Thursday took the opportunity to clarify its July affirmation of a $30 million verdict against the tire giant, a verdict that came after a judge took away Goodyear’s ability to defend a wrongful death lawsuit after she found company attorneys acted in bad faith and engaged in stall tactics.

The wrongful death lawsuit came after a deadly August 2004 rollover killed three people and severely injured another.

A Goodyear tire is alleged to have failed, leading to the crash, but the facts of the case were never presented to a jury. Instead, former District Judge Sally Loehrer sanctioned Goodyear by striking its answer to the lawsuit, leaving only damages for the jury to decide.

While the company’s appellate attorneys argue Loehrer should have held an evidentiary hearing to determine how severe and how much damage the delays caused, six of the seven justices agreed the judge can impose such severe sanctions without a hearing if the sanction is “non-case concluding.”

Critics of the sanction, including Justice Kris Pickering, the lone dissenter, call it the civil death penalty. Pickering in her dissent said Goodyear deserved a rehearing because it was not afforded fundamental due process protection at the District Court level.

The opinion, written by Justice Mark Gibbons, noted the case law that attorneys cited did not support their argument Goodyear was entitled to the evidentiary hearing as a matter of law, and reiterated Nevada law does not require the hearing if the sanction does not end in a dismissal.

Goodyear was supported in friends of the court briefs filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the National Association of Manufacturers; National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center; American Tort Reform Association; American Insurance Association; American Chemistry Council; and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Gibbons noted the Nevada Rules of Civil Procedure and state case law clearly allow a judge to “strike a party’s pleadings if that party fails to obey a discovery order or fails to attend his or her own deposition,” which is precisely what Loehrer determined Goodyear had done.

Regarding due process, Gibbons said that when Loehrer held a hearing to discuss the discovery dispute in January 2007 the only witnesses were the lawyers.

“These attorneys are all officers of the court,” Gibbons wrote. “Their conduct is governed by Nevada Rule of Professional Conduct 3.3, which addresses the standards of candor that a lawyer must have towards a court.”

With these standards in mind, the “representations of the respective lawyers were sufficient for the district court to question the lawyers about the deposition and document production dispute without the necessity of cross-examination.”

Goodyear provided attorneys for the plaintiffs 74,000 documents that were not labeled or sorted by category. Also, Goodyear representatives failed to attend their own deposition.

Contact Doug McMurdo at
dmcmurdo@reviewjournal. com or 702-224-5512.

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