It is not uncommon for a deposition witness testifying regarding critical events to make somewhat inconsistent statements under direct- and cross-examination. For decades California trial courts have denied summary judgment motions on the ground that such inconsistencies create triable issues of fact that must be resolved by juries. The lower courts cite two California Supreme Court opinions, Clemmer v. Hartford Insurance Co., 22 Cal.3d 865 (1978) and Reid v. Google, Inc., 50 Cal.4th 512 (2010), for the principle that "the task of disambiguating ambiguous utterances is for trial, not for summary judgment."
In Davis v. Foster Wheeler Energy Corp., __Cal.App.4th__, 2012 WL 1435016 (2012) [pdf], the California Court of Appeal was asked to reverse a summary judgment entered against the heirs of a refinery worker who had died of asbestos-related disease and in favor of the manufacturer of an industrial boiler that had been insulated with asbestos. A witness who had worked with the decedent testified under examination by plaintiffs’ counsel that he had witnessed (while working nearby the decedent) the manufacturer’s employees remove asbestos insulation from pipes attached to the boiler, creating dust that was inhaled by the decedent. Later in the deposition, while being examined by defense counsel, the witness said the opposite; only insulators hired by the refinery had applied and removed asbestos. He denied having any knowledge that anyone associated with the manufacturer had ever applied or removed asbestos. The trial judge, having reviewed the testimony of another percipient witness that corroborated the deponent’s second version of the relevant events, granted summary judgment for the manufacturer: “[N]o reasonable jury considering this opposing testimony would conclude that the [Foster Wheeler] workers are the workers who removed the asbestos insulation around the Foster Wheeler boilers.”
On appeal plaintiffs argued that Clemmer and Reid required reversal. The Court of Appeal, affirming, disagreed: “In this case, the testimony is not ambiguous, but is contradictory, and the issue is . . . whether with [the witness’s] internally contradictory testimony plaintiffs established the existence of a triable issue of fact, and on de novo review [citation] we agree with the trial court that it did not.”
Under Davis counsel need not shy away from bringing a summary judgment motion even where there are internal inconsistencies in the testimony, especially where the testimony favorable to the client is consistent with the weight of other evidence submitted for the trial court’s evaluation.