Texas Appellate Court Limits Important Pretrial Discovery Tool

Requests for admissions of facts (RFAs) are designed to streamline the admission of evidence at trial. They are an effective and cost-effective means to achieve the pretrial discovery. Now parties may stop using RFAs, as a decision issued today dramatically eased their use against noncomplying parties.

In Terry Swanson v. State of Texas and County of Travis, a female process server was horribly mauled by six dogs as she attempted to serve papers and was killed. The owner was sued sos the dogs could be euthanatized, as required by state law. After the defendant filed incomplete responses to the RFAs six days late, the state and county filed a motion for summary judgment based upon his failure to respond by the deadline.

However Swanson claimed that (1) the caretaker of the dogs, the only person who could admit or deny the facts, had been injured and (2) his attorney practiced criminal defense and was not familiar with the civil rules. The trial court rejected these flimsy excuses, ordered that all the RFAs had been admitted, and granted summary judgment.

The appellate court reversed, ruling that the trial court abused its discretion in reaching its conclusion. The court held that even a slight excuse will suffice, especially if delay or prejudice to the opposing party will not result. Otherwise, the court found that honest mistakes could lead to inequitable results.

What is a Request for Admission?

Under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedures, one party may serve the other with up to 15 written questions focused on matters that are not in dispute. The questions allow the parties to establish basic facts without having to present evidence and testimony in a formal court proceeding.

For example, the defendant might be asked to admit he or she was driving a 2014 Nissan Titan at the time of the collision. Getting these types of questions out of the way, the parties and the court can concentrate on the issues that are in dispute, such as which driver caused the crash and how extensive damages were.

Often a party will try to slip in a request such as, “Admit that you had sustained an injury to your back in the past.” The party needs to refute that he had a preexisting injury or that it had an impact on his injuries.

Court Decision Makes RFAs Less Binding — and Less Useful

Texas Rule of Civil Procedures 198.2 lays out specific deadlines for the requests for admissions: a party has to submit the RFAs at least 30 days before discovery ends and the other party must respond to the questions within 30 days, in most cases.

Failure to answer is considered admission in a manner most favorable to the asking party. So if an RFA asks“Admit you driving the car at the time of the wreck,” the court would normally conclude the answer to be “yes” if the recipient failed to respond by the deadline. However the party is permitted to pursue withdrawal of the admission if he shows good cause and the opposing party will not be unduly prejudiced, two hard to prove concepts.

Now it appears that any excuse can be dreamt up to explain why 30 days was not sufficient time to reply to basic questions. The Swanson case further waters down the usefulness of this important discovery tool.

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