Pilot v. Hill - Damage Caps in Utah?
On March 1, 2019 the Utah Supreme Court issued an opinion entitled Pilot v. Hill, 2019 UT 10 (March 1, 2019) that addresses several substantive legal issues common in Utah to tort litigation.
Utah law is unique in many ways, including discovery management. In 2011 the Utah Supreme Court adopted a "tier" system for discovery with an eye toward controlling escalating litigation costs and promoting the civil jury trial. When a lawsuit is filed, the plaintiff must designate whether the case is "Tier 1", "Tier 2", or "Tier 3". Tier 1 cases are smaller cases with values less than $49,999.99. Tier 2 cases are moderate size cases with values between $50,000 - 299,999.99. Tier 3 cases are cases worth more than $300,000.
This designation is significant because it dictates the time for discovery while also placing limits on what discovery can be conducted. For example, in a Tier 1 case fact discovery is limited 3 hours of depositions, 5 request for production of documents, and 5 request for admission and all discover must be completed in 120 days from the filing of the first Answer. Each tier has different discovery and time limits. The rule also set a barrier, or a cap on the amount of damages that can be recovered.
The Plaintiff in Pilot plead the case as a Tier 2 matter and made no attempts before the trial started to amend the pleadings to change this designation. The parties conducted discovery consistent with Tier 2 time/discovery limits. During the case, Plaintiff produced evidence of a future medical expense estimate between $625,000 - $634,000. At trial, no efforts were made to amend the pleadings to change the Tier designation and the jury returned a verdict of $19,484 in past special damages and $640,989 in future medical specials.
Following trial, Plaintiff filed a motion with the trial court for relief from its Tier designation and the request was denied. The matter then went to the Utah Court of Appeals which affirmed the trial court's denial. Pilot was actually taken up on a Writ of Certiorari to address this issue and it affirmed the lower court rulings. The verdict was reduced to $299,999.99.
WHY IS THIS A SIGNIFICANT RULING
Pilot v. Hill affirmed that the tier designation "caps" are just that. If a case is plead as Tier 2, the recovery is limited to $299,999.00 even if the jury's verdict is greater than this amount. Rule 26(c) Utah Rules Civ. P. contains language that implied these Tier limits acted as caps, but it is not clearly specified as such in the rule. The advisory committee notes offered more specific guidance, but that comment was not codified. Pilot creates precedent to support a cap on recovery. Reduction of the $660,473 to $299,999.99 means this rule creates a cap which is enforceable.
Pilot v. Hill also affirmed that changes to Tier designations can be made pursuant to Rule 15(a) and (b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, but that there are limits on when and how a Plaintiff must seek this amendment. Certainly, this decision will provide incentive for all attorneys to note and monitor the initial Tier designation before and during trial. Rule 15 provides a mechanism for amending pleadings (including Tier Designations), but the rule must be followed.
Pilot v. Hill, in my opinion, also signals a clear intent by this Utah Supreme Court to enforce the Tier Designation system. Significant time was spent by the Court addressing "why" the Tiers were established as they were. This discussion will be useful for practioners (and trial judges) moving forward and should provide clear guidance how to manage a case during fact discovery.
As trial lawyers, we must be mindful of the deadlines set by the court at the outset oft he case, but importantly this case underscores the importance of adhering to the discovery limitations set in the rule.
Stay Tuned. . .
EXPERIENCE | INTEGRITY | STRENGTH