May 20, 2016 Practice Points

Failure to Follow California Court's Order Results in Terminating Sanction

A trial court has the inherent authority to control proceedings before it

by Thomas Whiteside

“It is the imperative duty of an attorney to respectfully yield to the rulings of the court, whether right or wrong.” Hawk v. Superior Court, 116 Cal. Rptr. 713, 725 (Ct. App. 1974) (emphasis in original).  

Osborne v. Todd Farm Service is a reminder to attorneys that trial courts have the power to issue terminating sanctions when attorneys fail to heed this rule. In Osborne, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s case with prejudice after her counsel repeatedly violated the trial court’s orders excluding evidence. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment of dismissal. 

The plaintiff was a stable maintenance worker at the Ojai Valley School. In May 2010, she was injured after falling 11 feet to the ground while trying to move a hay bale from the top of a stack of hay bales. The defendant Todd Farm Service sold and delivered the hay bale to the Ojai Valley School. In the months preceding Ms. Osborne’s accident, Todd Farm Service purchased hay from three suppliers, including co-defendant Berrington Custom Hay Stacking and Transport, Inc. (Berrington), a Nevada company. Todd Farm Service also purchased hay from two California suppliers. Todd Farm Service kept the hay from the three suppliers in the same barn, and it did not segregate the hay bales by supplier. Todd Farm Service did not maintain records showing the origin of the hay bales it delivered to a particular customer. Ms. Osborne alleged that Berrington manufactured the hay bale involved in her accident.  

Prior to trial, the defendants filed several motions in limine. Motion in Limine No. 2 sought to prohibit the plaintiff from testifying that she could determine which hay bales were from Nevada and which hay bales were from California by looking at the color and texture of the hay. The defendants sought to exclude this testimony on the ground that the plaintiff failed to timely designate herself as an expert witness. Motion in Limine No. 4 sought to prohibit the plaintiff from testifying that: (1) Todd Farm Service’s delivery person told her the hay bale involved in her accident was from Berrington; and (2) she saw the delivery person with a receipt which indicated the hay bale was from Berrington. The defendants sought to exclude these statements because they were hearsay. The trial court granted both motions in limine, and warned counsel, “[t]here should be no reference to Berrington paperwork or mention the name ‘Berrington’ by the delivery people.” 

At trial, the plaintiff’s counsel disregarded the trial court’s rulings. In his opening statement, the plaintiff’s counsel told the jury that the hay bale that caused Ms. Osborne’s injuries came from Berrington, and Ms. Osborne knew it came from Berrington because she saw a delivery receipt indicating the hay was from Berrington. The plaintiff’s counsel also stated that the plaintiff could tell by the color and texture of the hay that it was from Nevada. The defendants’ counsel objected during the opening statement, and the trial court instructed the jury to disregard counsel’s statements.  

During the plaintiff’s direct examination, her counsel repeatedly asked her whether her supervisor told her the origin of the hay. The defendants’ counsel objected each time. The trial court repeatedly warned the plaintiff’s counsel that he was violating the court’s order. The plaintiff’s counsel re-argued the motions in limine twice, and each time he requested the trial court change its prior ruling. The trial court refused to do so. The plaintiff’s counsel continued to ask the plaintiff questions about the origin of the hay, to which she testified that the hay came from Berrington.  

At this point, the trial court excused the jury and stated the line of questions was “flagrant misconduct” in violation of the trial court’s rulings. The defendants’ counsel requested the trial court dismiss the case with prejudice as to all defendants. The plaintiff’s counsel asked the trial court to instruct the jury to disregard the testimony instead. The trial court ordered the case dismissed with prejudice against all defendants, “[a]s a sanction against both [plaintiff’s counsel] and [the plaintiff] for flagrant and repeated violations of the Court’s order . . . .” The plaintiff appealed. 

The appellate court held that the trial court did not err in dismissing the action with prejudice. The court reiterated that a trial court has the inherent authority to control proceedings before it. This authority includes the power to impose a terminating sanction upon a party that willfully violates the trial court’s orders. The court of appeals reviews a trial court’s order imposing a terminating sanction under the abuse of discretion standard. Here, the record clearly indicated that the plaintiff repeatedly and knowingly violated the trial court’s orders excluding evidence about the origin of the hay bale involved in the plaintiff’s injury. As such, the trial court did not err in imposing a terminating sanction. The court affirmed the judgment of dismissal and awarded costs to the defendants.  

Thomas Whiteside is an associate at Littler Mendelson, P.C. in Irvine, California.

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