Death Penalty Sanctions and a Creative Attorney Fees Argument

Boardwalk Motor Cars sued Imagine Automotive Group over allegations that it had bribed Boardwalk employees to obtain used cars at preferential prices for resale, and that it had outright stolen some cars from Boardwalk’s dealerships. During discovery, Boardwalk successfully moved to compel the production of certain financial records, including canceled checks and documents supporting Imagine’s claim that it had paid for the allegedly stolen vehicles. That set off a lengthy series of sanctions motions and hearings. A week before trial, the court struck Imagine’s defenses for failing to produce some of those documents, and on the third day of trial it struck all of Imagine’s pleadings when Boardwalk informed the court of Imagine’s failure to produce still other documents. The jury awarded $269,950 in damages under the Theft Liability Act. The trial court then awarded Boardwalk $389,898 for its attorney fees under the Act, plus an additional $180,000 in sanctions against Imagine for the discovery abuse. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court held that the trial court had not failed to consider the availability of lesser sanctions before imposing its death penalty sanctions. Among other things, the court had previously warned that noncompliance could result in dismissal, and the sanctions order stated that the judge had considered and rejected the less intrusive remedy of reopening discovery and continuing the trial. The trial court also did not err in refusing Imagine’s attempt to put on evidence disputing causation for Boardwalk’s claimed damages, as the striking of the pleadings meant that Imagine’s theft of the cars was an established fact. Imagine could have put on evidence that the cars were worth less than Boardwalk claimed, but could not dispute they had been stolen. The Court held that the sanctions were not excessive in light of Imagine’s multiple misrepresentations and acts of discovery abuse. Finally, the Court of Appeals rejected Imagine’s argument that Boardwalk should have been required to sub-segregate its attorney fees for the Theft Liability Act claim because that claim had shrunk during the course of the litigation from 256 allegedly stolen vehicles to only 11. The Court reasoned that segregation is only required between causes of action, not within a particular cause of action.

Imagine Automotive Group v. Boardwalk Motor Cars, No. 05-11-01119-CV

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