The Truth May Set You Free, But Lying Can Get You Tossed Out Of Court

Earlier this week, the New Jersey Appellate Division upheld the dismissal, with prejudice, of an asbestos plaintiff’s claims as a result of his pervasive lies during discovery.

The plaintiff, Michael Gaskill, commenced an asbestos-exposure lawsuit in Middlesex County in 2008, alleging that he had developed mesothelioma through exposure to asbestos-containing products while working as a mechanic’s helper at local auto body shops and while assisting his grandfather in automotive maintenance and repair work.  As the defendants investigated the plaintiff’s claims, however, it became clear that the plaintiff was not truthful, and that he had lied in his interrogatory responses, and in his deposition testimony, about his work history (which included significant work in the construction and demolition industries in which he may have been exposed to asbestos) and about his contacts with witnesses (in which he attempted to influence their testimony).  Eventually, after the trial court agreed to adjourn the trial to allow the defendants to conduct further investigation and discovery, the plaintiff himself admitted under oath that he had lied about his employment history and about concealing his contacts with witnesses.

The defendants filed a motion before the trial court to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims with prejudice, asserting that the plaintiff’s conduct constituted a fraud upon the court.  Judge Ann McCormick, the then-judge responsible for overseeing all asbestos litigation in Middlesex County, granted the defendants’ application, finding that the plaintiff had intentionally and purposefully lied to prevent the defendants from learning information that he thought was essential to the case.  Indeed, as Judge McCormick explained, “[i]n asbestos litigation, an accurate statement of work history is critical.”

On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed, and upheld Judge McCormick’s dismissal with prejudice of the plaintiff’s lawsuit.  In so doing, the Appellate Division reemphasized the inherent power of the court to impose sanctions, including the ultimate sanction of dismissal, for discovery misconduct that not only prejudices litigants but that also threatens the integrity of the judicial system.

While the courts’ decisions in this case are of course fact-specific, and driven largely by the egregious and pervasive nature of this particular plaintiff’s actions in lying about his work history, the fact remains that this case should serve as a reminder that a plaintiff’s failure to provide truthful information about key issues in a case – such as the critical facts of an asbestos plaintiff’s alleged work history – can result in the imposition of significant sanctions.  Defendants facing asbestos and other toxic-exposure suits inNew Jersey can and should be mindful of this decision in those cases in which they suspect or believe that a plaintiff is not being truthful and accurate, and should consider whether some form of judicial application, such as was used here, should be pursued.

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