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Pilot v. Hill

Supreme Court of Utah

March 1, 2019

Robert Pilot, Petitioner
Earl N. Hill, Respondent

          On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals Third District, Summit County The Honorable Kara Pettit No. 140500187

          Karra J. Porter, Kristen C. Kiburtz, Salt Lake City, Edward T. Wells, Murray, for petitioner.

          Kristin A. VanOrman, Jessica J. Johnston, S. Spencer Brown, Salt Lake City, for respondent.

          Justice Himonas authored the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.


          Himonas, Justice.


         ¶1 "Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day." Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, Essays: First Series (1841), (last visited Feb. 15, 2019). Embracing this contrary spirit, the petitioner in this case, Robert Pilot, applies this attitude to the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. In 2011, these rules were amended in large part to facilitate access to justice and promote proportionality in costs and procedures in civil litigation. The three-tier structure established by Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 26 requires plaintiffs to plead one of three tiers based on expected damages. In turn, this tier designation commensurably restrains discovery schedules, document production, and general costs associated with civil litigation. Because Pilot pled a Tier 2 case-which involves, among other things, a limit on recoverable damages-and never amended his pleading before trial, he now asks this court to allow a post-trial amendment of his tier designation so that he can receive more damages. The district court and court of appeals both rejected Pilot's motion for post-trial amendment of his tier designation. Because the facts of this case, the relevant law, and the rules of the tier structure-rules Pilot understood and followed before pragmatism forced an alternative understanding after trial-all dispositively oppose Pilot's preferred outcome, we affirm.


         ¶2 In 2011, Utah adopted several amendments to its rules of civil procedure with the intention of addressing the ever-increasing cost of litigation and its effect on litigants. High discovery costs and the expenses of a lengthy trial exert a ripple effect that can dissuade potential litigants from even bringing their cases. The prohibitive resources needed to try a case function as a limitation on access to justice for plaintiffs and defendants alike. In response to this problem, the Utah Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil Procedure recommended sweeping changes to the rules, which were put into place via the 2011 amendments.

         ¶3 Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c) separates cases into three tiers.[1] These tiers are delineated by the amount of damages claimed by the plaintiff. Each tier provides proportional caps on the allowed amount of deposition hours, interrogatories, requests for document production and admission, and days allotted to complete standard fact discovery. A Tier 1 case seeks damages not to exceed $50, 000 and each party is limited to three hours of deposition, five requests for production, and five requests for admission. Utah R. Civ. P. 26(c)(5). By contrast, a Tier 3 case seeks damages of $300, 000 or more and allows 30 hours of deposition, 20 interrogatories, 20 requests for production, and 20 requests for admission. Id. Under rule 8, "[a] pleading that qualifies for tier 1 or tier 2 discovery constitutes a waiver of any right to recover damages above the tier limits specified in Rule 26(c)(3), unless the pleading is amended under Rule 15." Id. 8(a). In turn, rule 15 provides the framework for the amendment of pleadings before, during, and after trial. This appeal pertains exclusively to Pilot's attempt to amend his tier designation under rule 15(b)(1) on the theory that Earl N. Hill impliedly consented to such an amendment.

         ¶4 The original action here involved a civil suit by Pilot against Hill for recovery of damages relating to an automobile accident. Pilot pled a Tier 2 case indicating a range of damages more than $50, 000 but less than $300, 000. There is no evidence presented to show or reason to believe that both parties did not adhere to the corresponding Tier 2 rules of discovery, deposition, production, and admission commensurate with the Tier 2 designation before trial.

         ¶5 During discovery and at trial, Pilot presented evidence that he had suffered damages well over and above the $300, 000 damage limit imposed by the Tier 2 designation. This prompted the district court to ask the attorneys at a pre-trial conference how to reconcile the claimed damages in excess of $300, 000 with Tier 2's recovery cap of $300, 000. The district court asked both parties "if [the jury] come[s] up with a verdict of $300, 000 or more, it gets reduced?" Hill's counsel responded, "Right." And Pilot's counsel said, "Yeah. And then we deal with that after trial," which, at a minimum, seemingly confirmed the district court's and opposing counsel's understanding.

         ¶6 At trial, Pilot put on evidence suggesting that he had suffered more than $300, 000 in damages. Pilot's expert economist testified that Pilot's lost earning capacity was between $625, 000 and $634, 000. Additionally, Pilot presented lengthy testimony and evidence regarding severe noneconomic damages resulting from his pain and suffering. Hill in turn presented two of his own expert witnesses to testify against the figures presented by Pilot and to attest to Pilot's ability to return to work. Additionally, Hill's attorney contested Pilot's claims for damages by vigorously cross-examining Pilot's witnesses. The jury awarded Pilot $19, 484 in economic damages and $621, 505 in noneconomic damages for a total of $640, 989 in damages.

         ¶7 After trial and after the jury verdict, Pilot filed a motion to amend his pleadings under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 15(b).[2] He contended that the issue of damages exceeding those capped by the Tier 2 structure was tried by implied consent of both parties under rule 15(b)(1) and that, regardless of consent, the pleadings should be amended under 15(b)(2). The district court found that the undisputed facts did not constitute implied consent for the purposes of rule 15(b)(1) and that rule 15(b)(2) did not apply. The district court reduced Pilot's judgment to $299, 999.99, commensurate with the limits of his Tier 2 designation. Pilot appealed, arguing that under rule 15(b)(1) he was entitled to amend his tier designation post-trial. The court of appeals affirmed the district court, stating that rule 15(b)(1) only applies to unpleaded issues, and that the issue of which tier this case falls into was pled when Pilot designated this as a Tier 2 case. Pilot appeals. We affirm the court of appeals.

         ¶8 We exercise certiorari jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(a).


         ¶9 When exercising certiorari jurisdiction, "we review the decision of the court of appeals, not that of the district court." Judge v. Saltz Plastic Surgery, P.C., 2016 UT 7, ¶ 11, 367 P.3d 1006 (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). In the process, we consider whether the court of appeals applied the correct standard. In this respect, the trial court's interpretation of rule 15(b) should be reviewed for correctness, but, "because the trial court's determination of whether the issues were tried with all parties' 'implied consent' is highly fact intensive, we grant the trial court a fairly broad measure of discretion in making that determination under a given set of facts." Keller v. Southwood N. Med. Pavilion, Inc., 959 P.2d 102, 105 (Utah 1998). Thus, in the context of this action, we review whether Pilot can amend his tier designation under rule 15(b) post-trial, infra ΒΆΒΆ 12-15, a pure question of law, for ...

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