Charges of discovery abuse get thrown around frequently in product liability litigation. We have not done a scientific survey, but we guess that such charges are levied against the manufacturer defendants more often than against individual plaintiffs. For one thing, seeking burdensome discovery, and then discovery on discovery, has been in the product liability plaintiff game plan for a long time. There also tends to be more discovery that a defendant could produce—and, therefore, be accused on wrongfully withholding—than a plaintiff could produce. There is also the practical consideration that large manufacturers tend to have the financial wherewithal to pay fees when ordered and contingency plaintiffs do not—although the lawyers who front the money for those plaintiffs and make the decisions about how to proceed in discovery typically do. While there are occasions where courts require plaintiffs and their lawyers to pay substantial defense costs because of bad conduct in discovery or in the litigation more broadly, an argument about how to calculate fees to be awarded for discovery abuse is something that we generally hope to avoid. It is not quite up there with arguing about the maximum acceptable ratio of punitive to compensatory damages that can be awarded, but it still makes us a little uncomfortable.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger, 581 U.S. __ (2017), slip op., involves a very large award of fees based on the district court’s conclusion that the manufacturer defendant in a product liability case had intentionally withheld important internal testing documents. The plaintiffs did not learn about the documents until after they had settled, when a reference appeared in a newspaper article about another similar case. Because the case had resolved, the late application to shift costs and fees appealed to the court’s inherent authority. Using that authority, the court not only determined that the defendant had engaged in bad faith discovery for years, but that it should pay the plaintiff $2.7 million for all costs and fees since the initial “dishonest discovery response.” Slip op. at 3. It specifically determined that egregious conduct by a party negates the typical requirement that fees be limited to those caused by the sanctionable conduct. Id. As a back-up in case the Court of Appeals reduced the award, the court determined that the costs and fees excluding what plaintiffs estimated they incurred in pursuing other defendants and in proving medical damages, would be $2 million. Id. at 4. (We find the whole concept of the fees incurred in the context of a presumably contingency fee representation somewhat bizarre. Did the plaintiffs’ lawyers actually charge more than $2.7 million in costs and fees to their clients when the proceeds of the settlement(s) were divided up?) The Court of Appeals affirmed the full amount and the Supreme Court granted cert.
The Haeger Court started by distinguishing between sanctions that compensate and sanctions that punish. The latter can only be awarded if the trial court provides the “procedural guarantees applicable in criminal cases, such as a ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard of proof.” Id. at 6 (citation omitted). (As an aside, we are not sure that each state requires such a standard of proof when punitive damages are offered, so maybe this Court would be strict in its evaluation of punitive damages.) “When (as in this case) those criminal-type protections are missing, a court’s shifting of fees is limited to reimbursing the victim.” Id. Damages to reimburse must have been caused by the sanctionable conduct, not merely come after it started.
The court’s fundamental job is to determine whether a given legal fee—say, for taking a deposition or drafting a motion—would or would not have been incurred in the absence of the sanctioned conduct. The award is then the sum total of the fees that, except for the misbehavior, would not have occurred.
Id. at 7-8 (citation omitted). The court has some leeway in making large sanction award as long as the touchstone is causation. A plaintiff can be hit for all costs of a defending case initiated in “complete bad faith,” such as we have seen relatively recently. Id. at 8. Sanctions can also be based on the court’s assessment of whether failure to disclose “evidence fatal to its position” affected the timing (but not amount) of settlement. Id. at 8-9.
In Haeger, the trial court did not apply a but-for causation test to its damages calculation, so it will have to do it over with the right standard (unless it determines that there was some sort of waiver). While we do not know what the amount of the sanction will be on remand, we do have an inkling that the damages imposed for discovery misconduct will tend to be less if the Haeger standards are followed in other cases. In a case where a fundamental lie by the plaintiff—claiming to have used the defendant’s product, claiming legal authority to initiate a suit, claiming no knowledge of the injury or its cause until shortly before bringing suit—caused a case to be brought or stick around, some bold judges can still impose significant sanctions following Haeger’s principles.