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Villaver v. Sylva

Supreme Court of Hawaii

May 13, 2019

RICHARD A. VILLAVER, Petitioner/Plaintiff-Appellant,
DAVID KAWIKA SYLVA; HAWAII MEGA-COR, INC., a Hawaii domestic for-profit corporation, Respondents/Defendants-Appellees.


          Charles H. Brower for Petitioner

          J. Patrick Gallagher Erin I. Macdonald for Respondents



          WILSON, J.

         In order to expedite the often extensive discovery process, Hawai'i Rules of Civil Procedure ("HRCP") Rule 36 allows a party to a lawsuit to "serve upon any other party a written request" for admissions. Requesting that a party admit the truth of matters of fact, or of the application of law to fact, narrows the issues that must be proven at trial to those that are actually disputed, which fosters more efficient trials. However, because a careless or inexpert litigant might unintentionally admit an entire case by failing to respond to a request for admissions, HRCP Rule 36(b) gives the trial court the discretion to permit the withdrawal of the admissions on the motion of an admitting party, so long as withdrawal will facilitate presentation of the merits and will not prejudice the party that obtained the admissions. Courts should exercise this discretion liberally in cases involving pro se litigants, which invoke the judicial system's interest in "promotion of equal access to justice[.]" Waltrip v. TS Enters., Inc., 140 Hawai'i 226, 239, 398 P.3d 815, 828 (2016).

         In this case, claims brought by pro se Petitioner/Plaintiff-Appellant Richard A. Villaver ("Villaver") were dismissed based on his alleged failure to timely respond to a request for admissions-notwithstanding his request that the court provide him with an interpreter to help answer the requests. Villaver was denied the opportunity to exercise the right to a jury trial on the basis of his alleged failure to respond to a request for admissions that asked him to concede he had no claim. Villaver appeals from the judgment of the Intermediate Court of Appeals ("ICA"), which affirmed the order of the Circuit Court of the First Circuit ("circuit court") granting summary judgment against Villaver on the basis of his failure to timely respond to the request for admissions. He argues that the ICA erred in affirming the circuit court and that his request for an interpreter should have been construed by the circuit court as a request to withdraw the admissions and file a late response. We agree.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Complaint and Court-Annexed Arbitration

         On November 15, 2010, Villaver filed a complaint in the circuit court, alleging that on August 20, 2008, Respondent/Defendant-Appellee David Kawika Sylva ("Sylva"), an employee of Respondent/Defendant-Appellee Hawaii Mega-Cor, Inc. ("HMCI"), negligently drove an HMCI-owned van into Villaver's sedan while it was being operated by Villaver. Villaver alleged that as a result of Respondents' negligence, "he suffered and continues to suffer from damages including, but not limited to, past and future medical and related expenses; past and future pain and suffering; past and future loss of enjoyment of life; [and] past and future serious emotional distress," and that he is entitled to compensation.

         The matter proceeded through a non-binding Court Annexed Arbitration Program ("CAAP"), where Villaver was represented by counsel. The arbitrator found in favor of Villaver, and awarded him $24, 245.58 in damages: $5, 942.62 in medical expenses, $8, 302.96 of lost wages, and $20, 000 in general damages, less $10, 000 for the covered loss deductible.

         B. Post-CAAP Proceedings

         On August 31, 2012, Villaver appealed the CAAP award and requested a trial de novo. On March 13, 2013, Villaver's attorney filed a motion to continue the trial and to withdraw as counsel. Villaver told his attorney that he would seek replacement legal counsel. Respondents took no position on the motion, and, after a hearing on April 3, 2013, the court granted the first motion to continue trial and for withdrawal of counsel, and set May 13, 2013 as the date for the trial setting conference. At the trial setting conference on May 13, 2013, Villaver made his first pro se appearance and requested more time to obtain counsel. A new trial setting conference was set for June 20, 2013. On June 20, 2013, Villaver appeared pro se for the second time, and trial was set for the week of June 23, 2014. The discovery deadline had been set as April 24, 2014, and the substantive motions deadline had been set as May 5, 2014.

         Approximately nine months after Villaver's second pro se appearance, on March 17, 2014, Respondents served Villaver with a request for admissions via U.S. mail. The request contained seventy-seven statements. Among those statements were five statements that the circuit court later relied upon to grant summary judgment to Respondents on all claims. The five statements requested that Villaver take a position contrary to the claims he successfully asserted before the CAAP arbitrator; specifically, they requested that he admit it was his negligence that caused the accident and that he incurred no injuries:

16. You were reversing your car out of a parking stall at the time of the subject accident.
18. Your negligence was the sole legal cause of the subject accident.
70. You did not sustain any injuries as a result of the subject accident.
76. You did not incur any general damages as a result of the subject accident.
77. You did not incur any special damages as a result of the subject accident.'[1]

         Less than a month after Villaver received the request for admissions, on April 15, 2014, defense counsel received a letter dated April 11, 2014 from Villaver's wife. Her letter explained that Villaver received the request for admissions and understood that the deadline to respond was April 18, but stated that Villaver was unable to complete the paperwork. According to Villaver's wife, Villaver became very stressed and overwhelmed when he tried to answer the questions, had a difficult time remembering the specifics of his treatments, and did not understand English well. She explained further that Villaver did not have legal representation and that she could not help him because she was suffering from depression and anxiety. She concluded her letter by explaining that they were returning the paperwork to defense counsel uncompleted.

         On May 1, 2014, Respondents Sylva and HMCI filed a motion for summary judgment. Respondents argued that, under HRCP Rule 36(a), because Villaver did not respond to the request for admissions within thirty days of service of the request, the matters contained within the request were admitted. HRCP Rule 36(a) states that each matter for which an admission is requested "is admitted unless, within 30 days after service of the request, . . . the party to whom the request is directed serves upon the party requesting the admission a written answer or objection addressed to the matter, signed by the party or by the party's attorney[.]" Based on Villaver's admissions, Respondents argued that Villaver's claims against them failed as a matter of law because he could ...

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