It reads like a John Grisham novel, only it is true. As a Board-Certified Civil Trial Lawyer in Miami who sues Carnival cruise lines, I have read thousands of appellate case decisions and opinions–and I have never seen one quite like the case of E.I. DuPont De Nemours & Company, Inc., vs. Claire J. Sidran, et al one of the most important fraud court cases.
The case was filed in 1992, when I was just a first-year lawyer, on behalf of a family-owned nursery in South Florida against DuPont, claiming that it made a defective plant fungicide called Benlate. The lawyers for the nursery are a father-and-son team, who took on DuPont in what can only be described as a crusade.
I have only once met the father, Ed Ratiner, but his son Bobby was my University of Miami School of Law classmate, and we share a very close mutual friend; however, I have never met Bobby. A lengthy and detailed appellate opinion was released this week from Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal recounting the odyssey of this case—stemming from its initial filing in 1992 through several trials, verdicts for and against the plaintiffs, appeals, and hearings that included the production of over 5 million pages of documents, depositions, and Florida bar grievances filed against both Bobby Ratiner and the lawyer from DuPont.
Dangerous and Defective Product Case
At some point in the last 22 years the case devolved from a Florida dangerous-and-defective product case into one of a purported fraud upon the court for DuPont’s failure to produce documents in addition to the 5 million pages already produced. The case also shows the evolution of legal technology, as when the case started in 1992, scanning of documents and electronic discovery were just emerging. As the case progresses you can see how the trial judge and our court system stumbled through the evolving technology in understanding how to use the computer, internet, and modern document and data processing.
The appeal came before 3rd DCA after the trial court entered an order striking DuPont’s pleadings for committing a fraud upon the court for hiding or destroying evidence about Benlate. When a court strikes the pleadings of a defendant, that measure eliminates any defense that a jury can consider as a trial proceeds whereby a plaintiff can simply ask a jury for an award rather than having to prove that the defendant did anything wrong.
Striking Pleadings For Discovery Abuse
In other words, when a court strikes a defendant’s pleadings, it is essentially like removing a goalie in a hockey game. The chances of scoring are almost 100% for the plaintiff, and I have tried fraud court cases like that before, but there is no guarantee that a jury will return a verdict nor any way to predict how much the award will be. But the chances of the plaintiff’s winning are nearly 100%.
DuPont has been sanctioned before in other cases from other jurisdictions for discovery violations for producing incomplete and unreliable evidence—or for failing to provide complete and reliable evidence. For example, in a shrimp-farmer case, DuPont’s lawyers “wrongfully withheld” relevant documents containing “factual evidence” that prejudiced the plaintiffs, and DuPont’s representation was sanctioned appropriately.
This case is different, and in reading the opinion you can see the painful road the Ratiners took. The emotional, physical, and professional toll that the case has forced Bobby in particular to endure and continue to experience is beyond my comprehension.
Why This Is One Of The Most Important Florida Cases in 20 Years
The case is a very important opinion for lawyers and law students to read for a number of reasons. The opinion outlines what elements must be proved to have fraud court cases dismissed in Florida, an outcome which the opinion cautions should be granted sparingly as cases should be tried on the merits:
- There must be “clear and convincing evidence” that a party has “sentiently” set in motion an “unconscionable” scheme calculated to interfere with the court system’s ability to fairly evaluate a case.
- The false testimony must be directly related to a central issue in the case.
In this case, in reversing the trial judge’s dismissal, the appellate court found that DuPont had neither intentionally destroyed nor failed to provide any evidence related to any relevant issue in the case.
Secondly, the case shows the crusade by one Miami personal injury attorney and his unbridled determination to take on one of the world’s largest and most well-funded corporate giants. His actions on more than a few occasions were inappropriate, and at many times embarrassing. His determination to fight a 22-year battle may lie somewhere between bravery and insanity, but I certainly admire him for it. I know a lot of lawyers across the country and cannot think of very many who could have survived a 22-year holy war with DuPont, win or lose. I urge you to read the entire Florida Appellate Court’s opinion here.
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