Generally, the burden is on the party resisting discovery to clarify and explain precisely why its objections are proper given the broad and liberal construction of the federal discovery rules. By contrast at the trial, it is the offering party that bears the burden of demonstration of relevance. It is at that juncture that courts require the plaintiff to demonstrate the substantial similarity of other accidents, complaints, claims or lawsuits. The substantial similarity rule may be relaxed if evidence is used to prove notice or awareness of a dangerous condition rather than causation and the similarity issue becomes one going to the weight of the evidence.
An oil company brought an action in indemnity and contribution against a dye manufacturer and brake cleaner distributor to recover the amount the oil company paid in settlement of certain product liability claims. Before the court were motions to compel discovery responses from both defendants. The underlying product liability claim involved a person who allegedly developed liver disease as a result of his exposure to certain chemicals. The theory of the contribution and indemnity lawsuit was a failure to properly warn about the dangers of liver damage from exposure to the dye manufacturer's red and blue dyes and the distributor's brake cleaner. One of the primary discovery issues was whether the dye manufacturer and brake cleaner distributor had to respond to discovery seeking information concerning any other claims or lawsuits involving similar issues.
Can the oil company compel the dye manufacturer and brake cleaner distributor to respond to their discovery to other claims involving alleged liver disease?
The court determined that the oil company successfully demonstrated the relevance of such requests to its failure to warn claim. The court limited the discovery to other claims involving alleged liver disease. However, the court did not limit the discovery to the exact same product at issue in the product liability case. Instead, the court compelled responses with respect to claims regarding other products containing the same chemical compounds. The court reasoned that such information was probative of what the manufacturer and distributor knew or should have known about the liver toxicity of the chemicals at issue.