D'Ascanio v. Toyota Industries Corporation
Our practice does not favor the termination of proceedings without a determination of the merits of the controversy where that can be brought about with due regard to necessary rules of procedure. Emilio and Maria D'Ascanio brought this products liability action for damages incurred from serious personal injuries sustained by Emilio D'Ascanio while operating an allegedly defective forklift designed, manufactured and distributed by the defendants, Toyota Material Handling USA, Inc., BT Prime Mover, Inc. and Summit Handling Systems, Inc. The plaintiff's liability expert, Daryl Ebersole, testified at trial commenting while a videotape played for the jury depicting another forklift. The court struck the videotape and testimony as misleading and precluded Ebersole from testifying further. The court denied the plaintiff's motions for a continuance to disclose another liability expert or for a mistrial and, ultimately, directed a verdict for the defendants for lack of expert testimony that the forklift was defective. The plaintiffs appealed. The Appellate Court reversed the judgment. The defendants appealed claiming that the Appellate Court improperly concluded that the trial court abused its discretion. The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court's judgment, agreeing that the trial court's actions were tantamount to a dismissal and the rulings constituted an abuse of discretion. While the sanction of dismissal should only be imposed as a last resort, a trial court does not abuse its discretion in dismissing a case without reaching the merits where, as the 1985 Supreme Court stated in Fox v. First Bank, "a party shows a deliberate, contumacious or unwarranted disregard for the court's authority." Here, as in prior cases where the sanctioned party's conduct did not evince a contumacious or unwarranted disregard for the court's authority, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion in dismissing the case. Despite attributing all allegedly deceitful behavior to Ebersole, the court's rulings had the primary effect of severely harming the plaintiffs. The fact that the plaintiffs chose Ebersole as their expert did not justify imposing the sanction of dismissal against them. The plaintiffs were given no chance to rectify the situation despite the lack of a continuous pattern of intentional misconduct. The ruling resulted in surprise and injustice to the plaintiffs. The court had other options that would have sufficed. Justice McDonald, with whom Justice Zarella joined, concurred separately.