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National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Cimarron Crossing Feeders, LLC

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 20, 2017

NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORP. and BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, Plaintiffs,
v.
CIMARRON CROSSING FEEDERS, LLC, Defendant, and EVERETT OWEN, et al., Intervenor-Plaintiffs, and NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORP. d/b/a AMTRAK; and BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, Defendants and Intervenor-Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          TERESA J. JAMES, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This case arises out of the March 14, 2016 derailment of a train operated by National Railroad Passenger Corporation (“Amtrak”) on railroad tracks owned by BNSF Railway Company (“BNSF”). Amtrak and BNSF (jointly “Railroad Plaintiffs”) bring this action against Defendant Cimarron Crossing Feeders, LLC (“Cimarron”) alleging that Cimarron's employees allowed a feed truck to roll into and strike the railroad tracks, which resulted in damage to the track that allegedly caused the derailment. Intervenor-Plaintiffs, passengers on the Amtrak train at the time of the derailment, seek damages against Railroad Plaintiffs and Cimarron.[1] This matter is presently before the Court on Intervenor-Plaintiffs' Motion to Compel (ECF No. 144). Intervenor-Plaintiffs request that Railroad Plaintiffs be compelled to fully respond, without objection, to requests for admission and related interrogatories seeking admissions about video frames from the train's on-board image recorder and a photograph taken during the parties' December 7, 2016 on-site track inspection. As set forth below, the motion is GRANTED with respect to Intervenor-Plaintiffs' Request to Admit Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5-8, and Interrogatory No. 18 to BNSF/No. 10 to Amtrak. The motion is DENIED with respect to Request to Admit No. 10 and Interrogatory No. 14 to BNSF/No. 6 to Amtrak.

         I. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 36 governs requests for admission. It allows a party to serve on any other party a written request to admit “the truth of any matters within the scope of Rule 26(b)(1) relating to: (A) facts, the application of law to fact, or opinions about either; and (B) the genuineness of any described documents.”[2]

         Rule 36(a)(4) sets out the following specific requirements regarding answers to requests for admission:

If a matter is not admitted, the answer must specifically deny it or state in detail why the answering party cannot truthfully admit or deny it. A denial must fairly respond to the substance of the matter; and when good faith requires that a party qualify an answer or deny only a part of a matter, the answer must specify the part admitted and qualify or deny the rest. The answering party may assert lack of knowledge or information as a reason for failing to admit or deny only if the party states that it has made reasonable inquiry and that the information it knows or can readily obtain is insufficient to enable it to admit or deny.[3]

         Requests for admission serve “two vital purposes, both of which are designed to reduce trial time. Admissions are sought, first to facilitate proof with respect to issues that cannot be eliminated from the case, and secondly, to narrow the issues by eliminating those that can be [eliminated].”[4] The purpose of a request for admission generally is “not to discover additional information concerning the subject of the request, but to force the opposing party to formally admit the truth of certain facts, thus allowing the requesting party to avoid potential problems of proof.”[5]

         Rule 33 governs interrogatories to parties. That Rule provides that the scope of an interrogatory “may relate to any matter that may be inquired into under Rule 26(b).” It further provides that “[a]n interrogatory is not objectionable merely because it asks for an opinion or contention that relates to fact or the application of law to fact, but the court may order that the interrogatory need not be answered until designated discovery is complete, or . . . [until] some other time.”[6]

         II. REQUESTS FOR ADMISSION AND INTERROGATORIES AT ISSUE

         A. Request to Admit Nos. 1, 3, 5-8

         Request to Admit Nos. 1, 3, 5-7 ask Railroad Plaintiffs to admit certain identified figures in the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) Recorder Group Report accurately represent video frames from the Amtrak train's on-board image recorder and what they depict.[7]In their responses, Railroad Plaintiffs admit that the identified figures accurately represent video frames from the Amtrak train's on-board image recorder, but deny the remainder of the requests as calling for “an expert opinion as to the interpretation of the image recorder video and locomotive event recorder data.”

         Request to Admit No. 8 differs from the other requests because it does not seek an admission that a figure accurately represents a video frame and what it depicts. It seeks an admission from Railroad Plaintiffs that “viewing the video from the AMTK 153 Wabtac VideoTrax On-Board Image recorder reveals that the locomotive swayed right and then left at 0002:14, which was approximately two (2) seconds prior to the Engineer Induced Emergency (EIE) which occurred at approximately 0002:16 on March 14, 2016.” Railroad Plaintiffs admitted that the video from the Amtrak 153 Wabtec onboard image recorder revealed that the locomotive swayed right and then left, but denied the remainder as calling for “an expert opinion as to the interpretation of the image recorder video and the locomotive event recorder data.”[8]

         Intervenor-Plaintiffs argue in their motion to compel that Railroad Plaintiffs' denial of the requests for admission on grounds the requests call for an expert opinion are improper objections. They claim that “[n]umerous courts have held this type of objection ‘reflect[s] folklore within the bar which holds that requests for admission need not be answered if the subject matter of the request . . . . addresses a subject of expert testimony.'”[9] According to Intervenor-Plaintiffs, these requests simply seek Railroad Plaintiffs' knowledge of what the identified figures depict, and information permitting them to admit or deny the requests are within their knowledge. They request that the Court compel Railroad Plaintiffs to answer these requests for admission with an “unequivocal denial or admission.”

         Railroad Plaintiffs argue that they “did not object to but denied the requests to the extent that they called for expert opinions on the basis that such opinions are not presently due.”[10] They argue these requests improperly seek premature expert opinions by asking Railroad Plaintiffs to admit facts concerning the interpretation of the event recorder data and locomotive digital video recording as they relate to the operation of the train and time distance calculations. They maintain that requiring them to admit or deny at this stage of the litigation will provide Intervenor-Plaintiffs an unfair and prejudicial early preview of their experts' opinions. Railroad Plaintiffs contend that the motion to compel should be denied, or, to the extent responses are required, any responses to these requests for admission should be postponed until after their November 2017 deadline for serving their expert witness disclosures.

         Railroad Plaintiffs denied the requests for admission on grounds the requests call for an expert opinion rather than formally asserting objections to them. However, the Court does not read Railroad Plaintiffs' responses as denying the “substance” of the matters asserted, e.g., what the identified video frame depicts, the speed at which the train was traveling, or the time to or distance from the Engineer Induced Emergency. Railroad Plaintiffs' denials of the requests for admission were thus contrary to Rule 36(a)(4), which requires that “a denial must fairly respond to the substance of the matter.”

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(1)(A), requests for admission are explicitly allowed regarding “facts, the application of law to fact, or opinions about either.”[11] Railroad Plaintiffs argue the requests call for their experts' opinions, but they do not indicate whether they have facts or opinions, or can make reasonable inquiries to obtain (independent of their experts) the knowledge or information to enable them, to admit or deny the substance of any of the multiple matters asserted in the requests. If they do have such knowledge or information, then even though their expert disclosure deadline has not passed, they are required to respond with whatever discoverable information they presently possess or can obtain after reasonable inquiry.[12]

         The very issue raised here by Railroad Plaintiffs was addressed in Heartland Surgical Specialty Hospital, LLC v. Midwest Division, Inc.[13] This Court agrees with Heartland[14] and finds it was improper for Railroad Plaintiffs in this case to deny Request to Admit Nos. 1, 3, 5-8 on grounds the requests seek to elicit expert opinion before the expert disclosure deadline. Railroad Plaintiffs must answer the Requests with the knowledge and information they presently possess, or can obtain after reasonable inquiry (independent of their experts), and cannot delay their responses until after their expert disclosure deadline.

         Railroad Plaintiffs may assert lack of knowledge or information in lieu of admitting or denying the requests for admission prior to their expert disclosure deadline if they have made reasonable inquiry and the information they know or can readily obtain is insufficient to admit or deny. As the Advisory Committee's Note explains:

The revised rule requires only that the answering party make reasonable inquiry and secure such knowledge and information as are readily obtainable by him. In most instances, the investigation will be necessary either to his own case or to preparation for rebuttal. Even when it is not, the information may be close enough at hand to be “readily obtainable.” Rule 36 requires only that the party state that he has taken these steps.[15]

         Railroad Plaintiffs shall serve amended answers to Request to Admit Nos. 1, 3, 5-8 in accordance with Rule 36(a)(4) within seven (7) days of the date of this Order, i.e., either admitting or denying based upon their own knowledge or asserting lack of knowledge or information after reasonable inquiry. The Court further orders that Railroad Plaintiffs shall supplement their answers to these Requests within ten (10) days of service of their expert disclosures and reports required by Rule 26(a)(2). Again, this is consistent with Heartland, specifically contemplated by the ...


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