plaintiffs and Ryder should be "bound" by the statements that Rohman and Hauff made at the scene of the accident. Chemical Leaman is not, however, contending that the exoneration card is a valid release of plaintiffs' and Ryder's claims against it. Indeed, in its reply affirmation, Chemical Leaman explicitly states that "the exoneration card is not offered as a legally binding contract, but merely as evidence of the fact that the adverse drivers' signatures appear on a document which by its terms holds John Witt, and his employer, Chemical Leaman, blameless . . . ." Chemical Leaman's Reply Brief, at P 8.
It is rather difficult to discern how plaintiffs and Ryder may be "bound" by a document that Chemical Leaman itself asserts is not a contract. The cases on which Chemical Leaman relies do not provide support for its argument, as they either discuss or refer to the principle that under New York law, a party may be bound by the terms of a contract that he signed even if he did not read the contract or understand it beforehand. See Gillman v. Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A., 73 N.Y.2d 1, 537 N.Y.S.2d 787, 792, 534 N.E.2d 824 (N.Y. 1988); Lucio v. Curran, 2 N.Y.2d 157, 157 N.Y.S.2d 948, 951-52, 139 N.E.2d 133 (N.Y. 1956); In Re Stone's Estate, 272 N.Y. 121, 123-24, 5 N.E.2d 61 (1936); Pimpinello v. Swift & Co., 253 N.Y. 159, 161-63, 170 N.E. 530 (1930); Metzger v. Aetna Insur. Co., 227 N.Y. 411, 415-16, 125 N.E. 814 (1920); Sofio v. Hughes, 162 A.D.2d 518, 556 N.Y.S.2d 717, 718-19 (App. Div.), appeal denied, 563 N.Y.S.2d 768 (N.Y. 1990); Johnson v. Thruway Speedways, Inc., 63 A.D.2d 204, 407 N.Y.S.2d 81, 83 (App. Div. 1978). Chemical Leaman seems to be arguing that because Rohman and Hauff signed the exoneration card, plaintiffs and Ryder are somehow estopped from asserting that Witt and Chemical Leaman were negligent. There is, however, no form of estoppel that would yield that result. Not surprisingly, Chemical Leaman has failed to cite any authority that would support this reasoning.
Despite Chemical Leaman's attempts to contend otherwise, the exoneration card is simply a piece of evidence that tends to show that Chemical Leaman and its driver were not negligent in connection with the accident. Cf. Martin v. Traver, 19 A.D.2d 571, 239 N.Y.S.2d 781, 781-82 (App. Div. 1963) (holding that certificate signed by plaintiff stating that contract was satisfactorily completed was not release of breach of contract claim, but was evidence in case). In essence, Chemical Leaman is arguing that this one piece of evidence is so compelling that it is entitled to summary judgment on this basis alone. While it is possible that a jury could find the exoneration card to be persuasive evidence that Witt and Chemical Leaman were not negligent, there is also evidence that could lead a reasonable jury to the opposite conclusion.
For instance, Rohman testified that he "touched [his] brakes once as a warning and then brought [his] vehicle to a controlled stop[,]" yet still was rear ended twice. See Rohman Aff., at PP 2-3. Furthermore, Ryder contends that Witt's sudden and unexpected stop caused Hauff to rear end the Chemical Leaman truck, thereby causing the second contact with Rohman's truck. See Martinez Aff., at P 5 (relying on accident report). Both parties make factual assertions about the circumstances under which the exoneration card was signed that could undercut its persuasiveness as evidence of an absence of negligence on Chemical Leaman's part. See Rohman Aff., at PP 7-9; Hauff Aff., at PP 8-9. If a jury credits some or all of this evidence, rather than Witt's contradictory testimony and the exoneration card, it could reasonably find that Witt and Chemical Leaman were negligent. On summary judgment, it is not the court's role to weigh this evidence or to hazard guesses about the credibility of the various witnesses. The question of which of the drivers, if any, were negligent is clearly one for the jury.
II. Requests for Admission
Under Fed R. Civ. P. 36(a), a matter set forth in a request for admission is deemed admitted unless, within 30 days after service of the requests, the party requesting admission receives an answer or objection to the request. It is undisputed that Chemical Leaman did not receive timely responses to its request from plaintiffs' counsel. Chemical Leaman therefore contends that Rohman has admitted that he signed the exoneration card, that he read it before signing it and that he signed it of his own free will.
Plaintiffs' counsel has not provided a satisfactory explanation for his failure to respond in a timely fashion. See Sheller Aff., at PP 1-2, 5 (setting forth tale of unforwarded mail and inadvertent failure to reply). Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 36(b):
Any matter admitted under [Rule 36] is conclusively established unless the court on motion permits withdrawal or amendment of the admission. . . . The court may permit withdrawal or amendment when the presentation of the merits of the action will be subserved thereby and the party who obtained the admission fails to satisfy the court that withdrawal or amendment will prejudice that party in maintaining the action or defense on the merits.
Plaintiffs' counsel has requested that we deem his responses, dated March 26, 1996, timely filed, thereby withdrawing the admissions.
We conclude that the presentation of the merits of this action will be subserved by permitting plaintiffs to withdraw the admissions. This action encompasses inter-related claims, crossclaims and counterclaims for negligence among plaintiffs, Chemical Leaman and Ryder. The exoneration card is likely to be an important piece of evidence in the jury's evaluation of which of the parties, if any, was negligent. We believe that in evaluating the reliability of this piece of evidence, the jury will benefit from a full exploration of the events surrounding the purported signing of the card. Furthermore, the presentation of the merits of this case can only be facilitated by eliminating any possible inconsistency or potential for confusion that might arise at trial if plaintiffs were deemed to have admitted that Rohman signed the exoneration card knowingly and willingly, while those same factual matters were disputed with respect to Rohman's defense to Ryder's counterclaim against him.
Chemical Leaman has not advanced any reason why it would be prejudiced in maintaining this action on the merits if we grant the request of plaintiffs' counsel. See Chemical Leaman's Reply Brief, at P 2 (no mention of prejudice to Chemical Leaman). Therefore, we permit plaintiffs to withdraw the admissions, and we deem their responses, dated March 26, 1996, timely filed.
For the reasons set forth above, Chemical Leaman's motion for summary judgment is denied. Plaintiffs' responses to Chemical Leaman's requests for admission are deemed timely filed.
Date: April 24, 1996
White Plains, New York
William C. Conner
Senior United States District Judge