A trial judge in Miami fined State Farm $20,000 this week for covering
up the amount it had paid to an expert medical witness. The judge found
State Farm lied when it said it could not figure out exactly how much
it had paid a physician to testify at trials.
Hernadez v. Quintanales, arose from an
auto accident. State Farm was the insurance company for the at-fault driver, and defended
that driver when he was sued by the accident victim. As part of its trial
preparation, State Farm hired a physician, Dr. Rolando Garcia, to testify
for the defense.
It is no secret in the legal world that insurance companies have "go
to" medical experts. Those experts typically tell juries that accident
victims suffered no serious injuries in an accident. Some of these experts
are literally paid six or seven-figure amounts for their testimony over
a period of several years.
Dr. Garcia is apparently one of those experts. In her order fining State
Farm, the judge found "Dr. Garcia has had a significant relationship
with State Farm for a number of years." She further concluded that
State Farm's payments to Garcia over the years were "very critical"
to cross-examination about his "motive and bias."
Naturally, the plaintiff's attorneys knew Dr. Garcia was a State Farm
favorite. To accumulate ammunition for cross-examination, they asked State
Farm to provide information about how much it had paid to Dr. Garcia from
2010 through 2012.
The problem was, State Farm claimed it was unable to provide that information.
It said it could not separate payments made to Garcia from payments made
to other doctors in his practice.
The plaintiff's attorneys called State Farm out on this. They pointed
out that State Farm had given exact information about its payments to
Dr. Garcia in another Miami case. Obviously, if State Farm had given the
exact same information in another case, there is no reason why it could
not give that information in the case at hand.
When the judge found out about that, she was not happy to say the least.
She wrote that State Farm was "hiding the ball" and being "dishonest
and disingenuous." In a written order, she fined State Farm $20,000.
She also awarded attorney's fees to the plaintiff's lawyers for
the time and effort they spent trying to get the payment information.
We have encountered similar hide-the-ball behavior in our own practice.
Even though Florida courts have said for years that expert witness payments
are critical information for cross examination, insurance companies still
claim they can't figure out exactly what they've paid to those
experts. The notion that organizations as large and sophisticated as these
insurance companies can't figure this out is laughable. Yet they continue
to say it anyway, because they don't want juries to hear how much
they are paying experts they hire for trials.
We applaud the plaintiff's attorneys in the Hernandez case for not
accepting that nonsense. Even more importantly, we hope the judge's
order regarding Dr. Garcia will cause insurance companies to think twice
before making such bogus claims in the future.