After three opinions from the Nevada Supreme Court, a case involving a motor vehicle accident that resulted in multiple deaths and injuries finally appears to have come to a close, but not without setting some significant precedents.
In Bahena v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, the plaintiffs were family members and friends who were traveling together in a single vehicle when the left rear tire of the vehicle, manufactured by Goodyear, separated from the vehicle. The event caused the vehicle to roll over multiple times, killing three people, and injuring seven other passengers. The injuries included a closed-head injury to a teenage boy, sending him into a persistent vegetative state.
The plaintiffs sued Goodyear for wrongful death, product liability, and other tort claims arising from the accident. During the litigation, the court found that Goodyear was not acting in good faith and being evasive and noncompliant in its discovery obligations. After multiple incidents of noncompliance, the district court sanctioned Goodyear by striking Goodyear’s answer to the complaint insomuch as it denied liability. The sanction effectively stripped Goodyear of its ability to contest legal responsibility for the accident, leaving open only the issue of damages to the multiple plaintiffs. The case proceeded to trial to determine damages, and a jury returned a verdict awarding the plaintiffs over $30 million in compensatory damages, but refusing punitive damages.
On appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court, the ultimate sanction and the jury verdict as to damages were both upheld. The Court found that the Nevada Rules of Civil Procedure permitted the district court to strike pleadings for discovery-related misconduct, and the sanction here was “non-case concluding” because the issue of damages still remained open for trial.
Goodyear asked the Nevada Supreme Court for a rehearing on the case. Six months after its initial opinion, the Court issued a second opinion, declining Goodyear’s request for a rehearing, but addressing a number of issues to clarify its previous opinion. Justice Pickering, in a dissent, argued that the “civil death penalty” sanctions were far too harsh for relatively minor discovery transgressions, and denied Goodyear its due process rights.
With the judgment affirmed, the plaintiffs and Goodyear negotiated a settlement in which the plaintiffs preserved their right to seek compound interest on the judgment. By statute, a prevailing party is entitled to interest on its favorable judgment at a rate based on the prime rate at Nevada’s largest bank, adjusted biannually, plus 2%. The plaintiffs argued that the statute provides for compound interest – interest paid on both the principal and the previously accumulated interest – compounded each time the rate is adjusted. The district court disagreed, and again the parties found themselves before the Nevada Supreme Court.
On January 30, 2014, the Court held that the plaintiffs were entitled only to simple interest, not compound interest, on the judgment. Because Goodyear had already paid the settlement sum and simple interest, this most recent decision appears to have concluded the case.
Not only did the litigation result in compensation for the victims and the families of victims who suffered catastrophic injuries in the accident, it also gained substantial attention for its approval of “civil death penalty” sanctions – effectively communicating to defendants that attempts to avoid compliance with the rules of litigation will not permit them to dodge liability to those victims.