Inzunza v. Naranjo et al. (2023) __Cal.App.5th__[2023 WL 5344893], involved a wrongful death action initiated against a truck driver and his employer. The plaintiffs claimed that the truck driver’s negligence caused the death of the decedent. After a jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, the trucking company employer appealed claiming that they were improperly precluded from bringing evidence to combat the vicarious liability claim against them as well as bringing evidence of comparative fault on the part of the decedent. In this recently published decision, the court reversed the judgment against the employer and remanded for a new trial. The Court based its finding for remand on the fact that deemed admissions of an agent employee-codefendant do not bind the employer as the principal in the same action, even when the claim involves vicarious liability.
Background of the Case
Jose Naranjo was killed in a car accident involving a tractor trailer driven by Jose Inzunza in December of 2015. Eyewitnesses to the crash stated that part of the tractor trailer was blocking the lane that Naranjo was driving in at the time of the accident. CRGTS employed Inzunza and owned the tractor trailer involved in the incident. The Plaintiffs included Naranjo’s surviving wife, two adult children and two adult stepchildren. They brought suit against Inzunza and CRGTS for negligence. They also alleged that Inzunza was operating the truck during the course and scope of his employment with CRGTS.
As part of the discovery process, the plaintiffs sought admissions of negligence from Inzunza and CRGTS. Although multiple extensions were provided during the discovery process, it soon to came to light that Inzunza had disappeared, Given this, his counsel was unable to complete the admissions including those which stated that Inzunza was negligent, caused the accident and that the decedent was in no way responsible for his own death. Due to this failure to respond, the plaintiffs filed a motion that each unanswered admission request be deemed as admitted by Inzunza. The court granted the motion finding that Inzunza was actively attempting to evade the lawsuit by disappearing and not maintaining any contact with his attorneys.
Plaintiffs also submitted Requests for Admissions to CRGTS. Many were identical to those sent to Inzunza. CRGTS denied all of them. However, due to that fact that Inzunza’s requests for admissions were deemed admitted because of his failure to respond, the court determined that CRGTS also could not present evidence contrary to those admissions. This meant that CRGTS was not permitted to present three eyewitnesses who had observed the decedent as not reacting to the blocked lane as other drivers around him did. Simply put, the court did not allow them to present any evidence regarding comparative fault on the part of the decedent.
The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and found that CRGTS was vicariously liable for Inzunza’s actions as he was acting within the scope of his employment. They awarded $7,619,000 dollars to the plaintiffs including the decedent’s two adult stepchildren. The court entered judgment on the verdict, and held CRGTS and Inzunza jointly and severally liable. CRGTS filed a motion for a new trial as well as a partial judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The court denied both motions and CRGTS appealed.
Did the Trial Court Err in Refusing to Allow CRGTS to Introduce Evidence Contrary to Inzunza’s Admissions?
When a party fails to issue a timely response to requests for admissions the requesting party may “move for an order that the genuineness of any documents and the truth of any matters specified in the requests be deemed admitted.” §2033.280, subd.(b). In effect this means that “a deemed admitted order establishes, by judicial fiat, that a nonresponding party has responded to the requests by admitting the truth of all matters contained therein.” Wilcox v. Birtwhistle (1999) 21 Cal.4th 973, 979. Further, any matter deemed to have been admitted “is conclusively established against the party making the admission” but “is binding only on th[e] party” that made the admission. (§ 2033.410, subds. (a) & (b).)
It is also important to note that the deemed admissions are only applicable against the party making the admission, §2033.410, subds.(a) &(b). Despite this rule, the Plaintiffs asserted that CRGTS should not be allowed to introduce evidence on liability and comparative fault because such proof would act as a contradiction to Inzunza’s deemed admissions and CRGTS’s liability is derivative of Inzunza’s because he was found to be vicariously liable for the decedent’s death. On appeal, the court disagreed with this position.
The statute clearly states, as detailed above, that the admissions are deemed truth against the party making the admission and is only binding upon that party. Neither side disputes the fact that Inzunza disappeared and failed to respond to any requests for admissions propounded by the plaintiffs. CRGTS, however, did respond to all discovery requests made by the plaintiffs in a timely manner. In their responses they clearly denied that Inzunza caused the accident, or that the decedent did not hold some comparative fault in the accident. In this instance, the trial court disallowed CRGTS to put up a viable defense of comparative fault by allowing the plaintiffs to claim that the admissions deemed true by Inzunza must also be deemed true for CRGTS.
Vicarious liability holds employers liable for the wrongdoing of their employees while engaged in the scope of their employment. “If the employee is not at fault, the employer is not vicariously liable.” Lathrop v. Healthcare Partners Medical Group (2004) 114 Cal.App.4th 1412. Thus, by not permitting CRGTS to explore issues related to vicarious liability and comparative fault, the trial court held that Inzunza’s deemed admissions as binding against CRGTS as well. The appeals court, however, reasoned that this was clearly not permitted by the statute and was in effect a violation of section 2033.410.
The plaintiffs relied on Murillo v. Superior Court (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 1278 and People v. $2,709 United States Currency (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 1278, which found that no parties to the case could present evidence contrary to deemed admissions. However, the plaintiffs failed to note that the courts in those two cases also stated that the general rule is “that an admission is conclusive in the action as to the party making it.” In addition, neither of the cases involved more than one defendant, as is the case here. The court found that neither case was instructive to the issue at hand.
By contrast, in Taylor v. Socony Mobil Oil Co. (1966) 242 Cal. App.2d 832, 833, the court ruled that “The validity of plaintiff’s argument rests upon his major premise that an admission implied from the default of one defendant is binding upon an answering co-defendant who has denied the relevant allegations of the complaint. His position is untenable. Rather, the correct rule is that admissions implied from default of one defendant ordinarily are not binding upon a codefendant who, by answering, expressly denied and places in issue the truth of the allegations thus admitted by the absent party.” Similarly, in Western Heritage Insurance Co. v. Superior Court (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 1196, 1199-1200 (Western Heritage), the court found that “A party’s default does not bind non-defaulting codefendants, even when the basis for the action against the codefendants is vicarious liability arising from the acts of the defaulting defendant.”
In the matter at hand, although it was at issue whether or not Inzunza was liable, it was not at issue whether CRGTS appropriately complied with discovery requests. The appeals court determined that it was unfair to “hold CRGTS liable for deemed admissions of fault resulting from Inzunza’s failure to timely respond to the requests for admissions.” Therefore, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that all evidence by any party contrary to Inzunza’s deemed admissions must be excluded.
An agent’s deemed admissions do not bind a principal who is also a co-defendant, even in the case where the co-defendant may be found vicariously liable for the acts of the agent. Section 2033.410 clearly states that only the party failing to properly answer discovery may be bound by any resulting deemed admissions of truth. Therefore, the appeals court reversed the judgment against CRGTS and remanded for a new trial.