Wednesday, September 22, 2010
C.A. Sanctions Toyota Attorney for Frivolous Appeal
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal has issued sanctions against a Torrance attorney who struck a pedestrian in a crosswalk with his vehicle and then denied requests for admissions of fault when the woman—who was also a lawyer—sued.
Div. Two, in an unpublished opinion Monday, held that Granville Webster Burns could not reasonably have believed he would prevail in the case given testimony that the woman did not unexpectedly step into his path, and the justices said his appeal of an award of costs against him for taking the matter to trial was frivolous.
Burns, an assistant general counsel for Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., struck attorney Ann Grant on the morning of Nov. 7, 2006 while making a left turn in a sport utility vehicle owned by his employer at an intersection in Manhattan Beach marked by stop signs.
He told a police officer that his vision was “obscured” by sunlight and that he did not see any pedestrians. The officer, however, concluded that Burns was at fault for failing to yield to a pedestrian in an unmarked crosswalk as required by Vehicle Code Sec. 21950(a).
Witnesses said Grant, who was returning home after walking her children to school, was making her way corner-to-corner across the intersection when she was struck by Burns.
Grant sued Burns and Toyota in 2008. When the defendants denied liability, she served a set of requests for admissions asking Burns to admit liability.
Burns admitted that he was the driver and that Toyota owned the vehicle, but he declined to admit or deny a number of the requests, noting that discovery was not complete and that Grant had not yet been deposed. He subsequently admitted that he struck Grant while she was near the center part of the street, and that he observed blood on her forehead before she was taken away in an ambulance.
Burns later amended his responses to Grant’s requests, but continued to deny liability. He contended that Grant failed to use due care for her safety based on her testimony that she did not see his vehicle until “just before contact” and that she would have run back had she seen it earlier.
At trial, a jury found that Burns’ negligence was a substantial factor in causing Grant’s injury. The jury also found Grant negligent, but it concluded that her negligence did not cause the harm and awarded her nearly $624,000.
Grant sought to recover attorney fees and other expenses from the trial under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 2033.420, arguing that they could have been avoided had Burns made the admissions she requested. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dudley W. Gray II, reasoning that Burns and Toyota could not reasonably rely on Grant’s statement as a basis to deny fault, awarded Grant almost $125,000.
Burns and Toyota appealed, but Presiding Justice Roger W. Boren rejected arguments that Burns’ denial of the requests for admission was reasonable. He wrote that “Burns’ deposition testimony alone, given before he denied the relevant [requests] in November 2008, conclusively established that he was solely at fault for the accident and for Grant’s injuries.”
The justice rebuffed the appellants’ constitutional challenge to Sec. 2033.420, and ordered Burns and Toyota, jointly and severally, to pay another $5,000 in sanctions to Grant for bringing a frivolous appeal.
“No reasonable attorney would believe that this appeal has any conceivable merit,” he commented.
Justices Kathryn Doi Todd and Judith M. Ashmann-Gerst joined Boren in his opinion.
The case is Grant v. Toyota Motor Sales, Inc., B220766.
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