Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Camp Is Over: Plaintiff Rests!

Cal. Crane Sch., Inc. v. Nat’l Comm. for Certification of Crane Operators, No. F063727 (D5 May 8, 2014)

In an interesting opinion, the court of appeal provides some pointers to trial courts on how to go about setting and enforcing limits on the length of trials.

For every test, there’s a test prep company. This one involves the certification test for crane operators. A ways back a crane cram school got caught stealing a copy of the test, which led to a lawsuit, a settlement, and sanctions from the test administration company. This case is the aftermath of that. The school now claims that the test company has organized an unlawful boycott, so it sued on a number of legal theories.

After a bunch of claims were dismissed, the case wound up going to trial on the school’s breach of contract and tortious interference claims. The trial judge limited the trial to twelve days, to be evenly split between the parties. The school wasted a bunch of time, taking three or four times its estimates on its witnesses. Ultimately, it ran out of time and was unable to call a few witnesses or to present a rebuttal case. The court nonsuited the school on its contract claim, and the jury rendered a defense verdict on tortious interference, from which the school appeals.

In the published part of the opinion, the school challenges the trial court’s imposition and enforcement of the time limits. In an opinion long on practical advice for trial judges, the court affirms. The court emphasizes that the trial judge’s has both the duty and the discretion to manage trials efficiently. Parties would be remiss to think that assignment of their case to a trial department gives them “camping rights. Certain practices, especially going dark because a party doesn’t have witnesses available, should not be tolerated. The trial court has the authority to set time limits, and if it does so, fairness to both parties requires the limits to be enforced. Although they can be subject to adjustment for good cause shown.

While limits can be expressed in either hours or days, the court here says hours is the better measure. Days can have disparate lengths due to the court’s obligations to handle other business—one day the parties could spend four hours sitting in the hallway waiting for the court to handle law and motion, while another could start promptly at 9 o’clock and run to 4:30. Counting by hours avoids that disparity, although it does require a little more work since someone—the judge or the clerk—has to keep track of time. In any event, whether a limit is hours or days, the court should discuss in advance with the parties the consequences of running out of time. It can permit the party that ran out of time to say its resting, or it can inform the jury that the party exceeded the time limits, and thus would have no further evidence to present. But whatever the result, it would be improper for the a party to comment to the jury regarding its opposing party’s running out of time.

Taking all this into account, the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion in setting and enforcing the limits it did. The relevant case law explains that the court can control the proceedings to prevent cumulative evidence or wasting the jury’s time so long as it does not unfairly restrict the parties
abilities to put on their cases. The record established that the school wasted a huge amount of time by calling two adverse witnesses under Evidence Code § 776 and proceeding to bicker with them on the stand for days on end.  Thus, the reason the school ran out of time was its attorneys’ poor time management, and not any unfair restrictions on the scope of evidence imposed by the trial court.

Affirmed on the published issue, but reversed and remanded on an unpublished issue involving the Cartwright Act.

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