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State Auto Property and Casualty Co. v. TPI Corp.

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

May 1, 2017

STATE AUTO PROPERTY AND CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff,
v.
TPI CORPORATION, Defendant.

          ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO COMPEL

          C. ASHLEY ROYAL, JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendant TPI Corporation's Motion to Compel Plaintiff State Auto Property and Casualty Insurance Company to respond to five requests for production of documents. On February 6, 2017, the Court held a telephone conference with the lawyers to resolve several discovery disputes. During the conference, Defendant and Plaintiff disputed whether the documents requested are necessary to support Defendant's defense theories. To resolve the discovery issue, the Court directed Defendant to submit a brief explaining why his defense theories were viable under Georgia law and asked Plaintiff to respond. Now, having fully considered the parties' arguments and applicable law, the Court DENIES Defendant's Motion to Compel [Doc. 29].

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff State Auto, subrogated to the interests of its insured Lolos Real Estate/Nu-Way Weiners, Inc. (“Nu-Way”), brings this products liability action against Defendant TPI. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant's defective infrared heater caused a fire on Nu-Way's premises on March 13, 2015, and Plaintiff seeks to recover for the resulting property damage losses.

         On February 6, 2017, the Court held a telephone conference with the lawyers to resolve several discovery disputes. One of those disputes involves Defendant's requests for production of Plaintiff's underwriting file for NuWay and its written guidelines, policies, and procedures for underwriting (collectively “underwriting files”). Defendant argues these underwriting files are relevant to its apportionment of fault and voluntary payment defenses. However, Plaintiff objects to the requests and maintains these documents are not relevant to any claims or defenses. To resolve this issue, the Court directed Defendant to submit a brief explaining why its arguments concerning the discoverability of Plaintiff's underwriting files are viable theories under Georgia law. Thereafter, Defendant filed a Motion to Compel to support its request for production of documents and explain its defense theories, and Plaintiff responded. The Motion is now ripe for decision.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26, parties are entitled to discovery regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any claim or defense.[1]Generally, a district court's decision to compel discovery is not an abuse of discretion where the items requested are arguably relevant to the case.[2] The information sought need not be admissible at trial but must only be likely to lead to relevant admissible information.[3] Thus, the degree of need sufficient to justify granting a motion to compel will vary to some extent with the burden of producing the requested information. In other words, the relevance of discovery requests must be weighed against “oppressiveness” in deciding whether discovery should be compelled, and a plaintiff seeking a broad range of documents must show a more particularized need and relevance.[4] However, discovery is not limitless-“[t]he information sought must be relevant and not overly burdensome to the responding party.”[5]

         DISCUSSION

         Defendant contends Plaintiff's underwriting files are directly relevant to the affirmative defenses of contributory negligence, assumption of risk, non-party fault, and voluntary payment. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         Non-Parties' Comparative Fault

         First, Defendant argues non-parties to this action, including Nu-Way and the installer of the infrared heater, are contributorily negligent for the fire and assumed such risk because the infrared heater was installed improperly, combustible materials were stored too close to the heater, and there was not an operable fire sprinkler system on the premises. To support these arguments, Defendant seeks Plaintiff's underwriting files and its general policies and procedures for underwriting risks. However, Plaintiff argues it has already produced its property inspection report and the entire claim file, and there is nothing else in the underwriting files that are relevant to Defendant's defenses. The Court agrees.

         Plaintiff already produced the entire 1, 200 page claim file during the initial disclosures. The file contained a property inspection report from February 14, 2013, that clearly identified the sprinkler system as being inoperative; thus, Plaintiff does not dispute this fact. Additionally, the Court directed Plaintiff to turn over any other property inspection reports or related documents to Defendant. Plaintiff produced the additional documents related to the February 2013 property inspection and confirmed no other inspections were conducted of the Nu-Way property. Because this information has already been produced, and Defendant has not shown how the remaining documents are relevant to the non-parties' knowledge or comparative fault, the Court will not require Plaintiff to produce all of its underwriting files and general policies and procedures for underwriting risks.[6]

         Plaintiff's Direct Fault

         Next, Defendant asserts its defense theories of contributory negligence and assumption of risk directly against Plaintiff and, thus, seeks the underwriting files to determine Plaintiff's assessment and knowledge of these risks. During the telephone conference, the Court directed Defendant to show how these theories were viable under Georgia law, which Defendant failed to do. Instead, Defendant points to an unpublished West Virginia case.[7] The Court does not find this case or any cases cited therein persuasive.[8] Accordingly, as ...


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