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Defendant’s motion to quash plaintiff’s requests for admission of fact in maritime case granted

Court:  United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

In January 2019, Harry F. Marsh filed an action in Louisiana State Court alleging asbestos exposure while aboard various merchant marine vessels. He alleged Lykes owned and/or operated a number of such vessels. He further alleged Lykes’ insurer, Continental Insurance Company, was liable for the former’s negligence in failing to warn, prevent, or otherwise exercise reasonable care with regard to the use of asbestos. Continental successfully removed the matter to federal court under federal officer jurisdiction. Mr. Marsh then died from mesothelioma in August 2019 and his widow Cynthia Marsh was substituted as adminstratrix of his estate.

During discovery, Continental moved to quash plaintiff’s First Set of Requests for Admission of Facts (“RFAs”), arguing the 308-page document containing 1,459 requests were unduly burdensome, harassing, and contrary to the purpose of Rule 36 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Continental noted plaintiff sued Continental under the Direct Action Statue as the alleged insurer of Lykes and alleged the majority of the requests were improper. Plaintiff’s response argued its requests established that Lykes was the owner of the vessels referenced in its RFAs, said RFAs were steamships, and that the RFAs sought to establish the decedent was a Jones Act seaman. Thus, the RFAs were designed to narrow down evidence to later present to a jury.

The court evaluated both Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26 and 36 in its decision. Firstly, it recognized Rule 26(b)(1) provides that “[p]arties may obtain discovery regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense.”  See Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). Moreover, “Relevant information need not be admissible at trial if the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.”  Id. Thus, while discovery rules “are accorded broad and liberal treatment to achieve their purposes of adequately informing litigants in civil trials,” discovery still has “ultimate and necessary boundaries.” Marsh v. Cont’l Ins. Co., 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63837, at *2 (ED la Apr. 12, 2023, No. 19-9339); Herbert v. Lando, 441 U.S. 153 (1970); Oppenheimer Fund, Inc. v. Sanders, 437 U.S. 340 (1978) (quoting Hickman v. Taylor, 329 U.S. 495 (1947)). Critically, the court stated, “It is well established that ‘control of discovery is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court.’”  Marsh, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63867 at *2; Freeman v. United States, 556 F.3d 326, 341 (5th Cir. 2009); Coleman v. Am. Red Cross, 23 F.3d 1091, 1096 (6th Cir. 1994).

Nevertheless, the court determined Rule 26(b)(2)(C) limits discovery in cases where: (1) the discovery sought is unreasonable cumulative or duplicative, or is obtainable from another, more convenient less burdensome, or less expensive source; (2) the party seeking discovery has had ample opportunity to obtain the discovery sought; or (3) the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.  Id.  In assessing this last factor, a court must consider:  (1) the needs of the case; (2) the amount in controversy; (3) the parties’ resources; (4) the importance of the issues at stake in the litigation; and (5) the importance of the proposed discovery in resolving the issues.  Id. at 26(b)(2)(C)(iii).

With respect to Continental’s motion, the court also noted that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 36 does not specifically limit the number of requests for admission that a party may serve. As such, there is no absolute number considered excessive universally. Instead, “a court considers whether the burden and expense of answering the requests outweigh the importance of the requests in resolving the issues.”  McKinney /Pearl Rest. Partners, L.P. v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., No. 3:14-CV-2498-B, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1999, 2016 WL 98603, at *15 (N.D. Tex. Jan. 8, 2016). 

Here, the court determined the “vast majority” of plaintiff’s RFAs were irrelevant, duplicative, and burdensome in volume, especially considering it was an action against a single insurance company via the Louisiana Direct Action Statute. Since the statute “is an application of contract law that a third-party beneficiary may sue to enforce a contract for his benefit even though not himself a party to the agreement,” it was clear the RFAs would have been properly directed at Lykes, not Continental.  InRe Combustion, Inc., 960 F.Supp. 1056, 1059 (W.D. La. 1997).

Finally, the court further determined that numerous RFAs featured interchanged dates in otherwise identical requests and the sheer volume was “disproportionate to the needs of the case when considering the fact that the majority of the requests concern an entity other than Continental.” 

As a result, the burden of plaintiff’s RFAs outweighed their potential benefit as per Fed.R.Civ.Pro. 26. Thus, the court granted Continental’s Motion to Quash along with its Motion for Protective Order limiting the scope of plaintiff’s corporate deposition requests.

Read the full decision here.