Trial Begins When You File Your Complaint: What to Know About Utah’s Tier System
With minimal exceptions, all lawsuits begin with the filing of a complaint. It is the first time that a plaintiff gets to tell his or her story, set forth the claims he or she wants a jury to consider, and what damages he or she seeks. Regarding damages, many complaints have boilerplate language stating that the plaintiff seeks “damages in an amount to be proven at trial.” That’s just fine, but plaintiffs need to strongly consider on the filing of a complaint what damages they hope to receive if the case goes to trial. Failure to do so can have devastating – and truly costly – consequences.
The reason that plaintiffs need to consider just how much they want to recover is that because, under Utah law, damages can be limited by what discovery tier a plaintiff selects. Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 26 sets forth three tiers for cases.
The three tiers are as follows:
|Tier||Amount of Damages||Total Fact Deposition Hours||Rule 33 Interrogatories including all discrete subparts||Rule 34 Requests for Production||Rule 36 Requests for Admission||Days to Complete Standard Fact Discovery|
|1||$50,000 or less||3||0||5||5||120|
|2||More than $50,000 and less than $300,000 or non-monetary relief||15||10||10||10||180|
|3||$300,000 or more||30||20||20||20||210|
We are unaware of any other state that has structured discovery in this manner. For example, in federal court, the parties can negotiate what discovery they believe is necessary during what is called a “Rule 26(f) Scheduling Conference.” Importantly, in federal court, the discovery allowed is not necessarily predicated upon any damages amount.
Many focus on the tiers as setting limits on discovery (the process of getting information from the defendant). The discovery restrictions are listed in the various columns above (Interrogatories, Requests for Production, Requests for Admission, and Disposition Hours). While these limitations are important (including the limitation on how long discovery can take), the damages limits are crucial as well. As one can see, if a plaintiff files a tier 2 case, the damages the plaintiff wants to recover are “[m]ore than $50,000 [but] less than $300,000[.]” If a plaintiff intentionally (or mistakenly) selects a tier 2 case but receives more from the jury, the plaintiff’s damages would be capped at $300,000.
This is exactly what happened in Pilot v. Hill. Mediator Frank Carney provides a great analysis of the Pilot case here: http://www.fjcadr.com/8/post/2016/10/court-denies-post-verdict-amendment-of-tier.html In Pilot, the plaintiff plead a tier 2 case. At trial, the jury came back with a $641,000 verdict. After the verdict, the defendant moved to reduce the amount of the jury verdict by $341,000 to the cap imposed on tier 2 cases, which would result in a $300,000 judgment. While the plaintiff employed some wonderful lawyering to avoid it, the court allowed the reduction. The court’s order can be found here:http://www.fjcadr.com/uploads/3/2/5/7/3257891/2016-10-18_hill_order.pdf (h/t Frank Carney).
While Carney suggests that plaintiffs should always plead tier 3, there are some downsides. One, that would entirely destroy the amendments to the Rules of Civil Procedure. Two, and more importantly, pleading a higher tier than necessary can expose the plaintiff to more discovery, up to 30 hours of depositions. Discovery is the most important part of litigation, and defendants are usually well-funded to navigate expansive discovery. That being said, if the damages are potentially there, plead a lower case at your own risk.
If you have a civil matter – including complex commercial disputes, securities, real estate, personal injury, medical malpractice, or other matters – call Robert B. Cummings at The Salt Lake Lawyers: (801) 590-7555.
The information provided herein is for educational and information purposes only and is not intended and should not be construed as legal advice. These commentaries are considered advertising under applicable state laws. CW Hawkes, PLLC d/b/a The Salt Lake Lawyers is located in the historic Newhouse Building in downtown Salt Lake City, at 10 Exchange Place, Ste. 622, Salt Lake City, UT 84111.