“Close” counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, but not when it comes to identifying “new” evidence in a new trial motion

For purposes of a new trial motion, evidence is considered “newly discovered” if the party seeking the new trial “could not, with reasonable diligence, have discovered and produced [the evidence] at trial.” (Code Civ. proc., § 657, subd. 4.) Suppose the evidence is available just a few days before trial, but expert analysis can’t be completed until afterward?

That’s easy, you day. It’s trial, for crying out loud! You get your expert on it right away!

Let’s see if your answer is the same under the facts of Shiffer v. CBS Corp., case no. A139388 (1st Dist., Sept. 8, 2015), an asbestos exposure case, in which the new trial motion was filed after the defendant prevailed on its summary judgment motion rather than after a trial. In opposition to the summary judgment motion, the plaintiff’s proffered evidence of his “bystander” exposure to asbestos during the installation of piping insulation at a power plant, but it was considered inadequate.

When plaintiff moved for a new trial, he proffered a new declaration from one of his experts, dated two weeks after the summary judgment hearing, that asserted a new theory of “re-entrainment” exposure (asbestos fibers re-entering the air upon being disturbed). The expert based his analysis on two documents plaintiff had received in discovery about a month prior to the summary judgment hearing and the deposition testimony of one of defendant’s experts, who was deposed about the documents four days before the hearing. The expert had signed his original declaration in opposition to summary judgment between the time plaintiff received the documents and the deposition of defendant’s expert, which plaintiff’s expert apparently did not attend.

That’s a tight timeline, to be sure, if the opinion could only be proffered after the deposition of the defense expert, but all of the information necessary for the revised opinion was in plaintiff’s hands prior to the hearing, and that is enough for the court to find that there is no new evidence here. The court cited a case holding that “depositions conducted on [the] eve of summary judgment do not generate new facts.”

The court states there was “no justification for the delay,” but does not detail any argument by which plaintiff tried to justify it. One presumes that plaintiff argued that the documents received a month before the hearing did not allow for the supplemental opinion without the testimony of the defense expert, given just days before the hearing. But even if the plaintiffs could establish this, it seems like the court would have found the plaintiff had enough lead time, for the court also notes that the transcript of the deposition taken just days before the hearing was only 37 pages long.

Lesson learned: Don’t put off discovery to the last minute, especially when opposing a summary judgment motion. Had these depositions been conducted just a week or two earlier, plaintiff’s expert likely would have been able to formulate his conclusions prior to the hearing. If you do get jammed on discovery, at least get the rough transcripts to your experts. And, finally, why not have your expert attend the deposition of his counterpart? Yes, it will cost a few dollars, but they would have been dollars well spent in this case.