If you’ve tried cases, you’ve probably had your own witnesses — who you thought were solid — disintegrate in front of you at trial.  They start acting quirky, begin conceding important points on direct examination they had held on to at their depositions, and are still facing cross-examination.

What do you do?  I can tell you what not to do.  Don’t do what the lawyers did at the trial of Brockington v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc.  These lawyers, Gill and Wright, were from Virginia and appearing pro hac in a trial in Johnston County.  The case involved an explosion at a ConAgra plant that had resulted in death and injury to several workers.

Their witness, Pottner, testified that he probably knew that gas lines were being installed across the roof of the ConAgra plant while he and Jacobs Engineering were working there.  This was apparently a significant concession, because Pottner had testified at his deposition that he didn’t recall knowing about the gas lines.

Gill and Wright seemed to have concluded that Pottner had lost his mind.  Gill took him to an Urgent Care after Court on March 20th, and Wright reported the next day that Pottner had an alarmingly high blood pressure and that he might have an aneurysm.  Gill stated that one of Pottner’s pupils had not been sensitive to light, a sign of a neurologic disorder.  They were also concerned that he had had a stroke.

Gill and Wright sent Pottner home to Wisconsin after several days of treatment even though he was still under a subpoena to appear at trial.  Judge Hobgood, relying on the representations of Gill and Wright, said that Pottner had been reported to have had a stroke and a loss of partial use of one side of his body.  He declared Pottner "unavailable" to testify per Rule 804(a)(4) of the Rules of Evidence.  Pottner never finished his testimony.

The Judge learned a little bit later, after medical records were subpoenaed, that the lawyers had misstated Pottner’s condition.  He had not had a stroke, had not lost the use of his body, his blood pressure had not been as high as stated by counsel, and he was under no restrictions when he left Wake Medical Hospital in North Carolina.  Judge Hobgood observed that Pottner could have returned to testify without any danger to his health.

In his Order sanctioning the parties represented by the lawyers, the Judge outlined a number of violations of the NC Rules of Professional Conduct by Gill and Wright.  Those were of:

  • Rule 3.3, which requires candor toward the Court.  A lawyer is obligated to "inform the trial tribunal of all material facts known to the lawyer which will enable the tribunal to make an informed decision, whether or not the facts are adverse."  Pottner’s counsel had known that Judge Hobgood had not accurately stated Pottner’s condition when he was declared to be unavailable.
  • Rule 3.4, which requires attorneys to conduct themselves with fairness to the opposing party and counsel.  You can’t encourage a witness to leave the jurisdiction and make himself unavailable as a witness.
  • Rule 8.4(d), which prohibits conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Since Pottner had been under subpoena, the defendants were open to a variety of sanctions per Rule 45 of the NC Rules of Civil Procedure.  Rule 45(e)(1) says that the Court can impose upon a party who fails to comply with a subpoena without cause any sanction allowed by Rule 37(d),  Judge Hobgood chose to strike the Defendants’ Answer, saying that "no less a sanction" would provide an adequate remedy to the Plaintiffs.

The Order was entered on April 4, 2012.  Nine days later, the jury, unencumbered by any of the stricken defenses, returned a $14.6 million verdict for the Plaintiffs

There is still a punitive damages phase of the case to be tried.  I wonder if the Virginia lawyers will have the nerve to come back.

I wouldn’t have known about this cautionary and very interesting trial court Order but for one of my partners circulating it at Brooks Pierce.  He asked me to keep him anonymous.  If any of you receive Orders that deserve wider circulation, I would be glad to write about them and even to disclose your identity and generosity.