The opinion of the court was delivered by: SAROKIN
In order for the compulsory arbitration program to function properly, it is essential that the parties participate in a meaningful manner. This is particularly so in a case such as this in which one of the parties is a substantial corporation and the other party is one or more individuals. The purposes of the arbitration program are to provide the parties with a quick and inexpensive means of resolving their dispute while, at the same time, reducing the court's caseload.
Here, defendants move for trial de novo after the entry of an adverse arbitration award. The court grants the motion, but imposes sanctions on defendants for failure to participate in the arbitration meaningfully.
Plaintiffs were passengers aboard a flight of defendant Eastern Air Lines from Miami to Martinique on November 27, 1983. They allege that they were wrongfully ejected from their flight during a stopover in St. Croix after two incidents on board involving knives. Their complaint states claims for breach of contract, negligence, false imprisonment, battery, assault, slander, invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress and conversion.
The court referred the matter to compulsory arbitration, as General Rule 47 requires. The arbitrator heard the case on May 20, 1987. The defendants did not attend the arbitration; their appearance was through counsel. Although the parties dispute the extent of defense counsel's presentation at the arbitration, they agree that she presented summaries of the defendants ' position and read at least a few passages from deposition testimony and answers to interrogatories. The arbitrator found for each of the plaintiffs.
Within the thirty days allotted by General Rule 47(G)(1), defendants moved for a trial de novo. Plaintiffs opposed the motion, contending that defendants' failure to participate meaningfully in the arbitration as General Rule 47(E)(3) requires deprived them of their right to demand a trial de novo. As the court was unable to evaluate the meaningfulness of the defendants' participation in the arbitration, the court remanded the case to the arbitrator for a factual finding on that question.
On November 12, 1987, the arbitrator made the requested factual findings. Letter of Daniel E. Isles, Esq., Arbitrator (November 12, 1987). He found as a fact that defendants' attorney did not participate in the arbitration proceeding in a meaningful manner:
I find as a fact that she merely "went through the motions." I find as a fact that the foregoing was a predetermined position taken by her office, even though that position remains obscure to me. I find as a fact that her "participation" in the arbitration proceeding rendered it a sham. . . .
I was . . . flabbergasted when [defendants' counsel] arrived with no witnesses. She stated . . . that all Eastern personnel were on assignment, and that she would render fact summaries and position summaries. While she may have read a few interrogatories and answers [sic] a few lines from one or more deposition transcripts, ninety five percent (95%) of her participation was in fact stating position summaries on behalf of Eastern, and stating fact summaries as to what Eastern's personnel may have said in their own depositions. . . .
I recall another event that occurred at the arbitration proceeding which further buttresses my within findings of fact. At the end of the hearing I asked [defendants' counsel] as to whether she wanted damage awards broken down into compensatory damages and punitive damages, if I should determine to make such damage awards. Her reply to me as best I can paraphrase it now was "Do what you want, or, we don't care what you do, we won't pay it anyway."
After the arbitrator filed his fact findings with the court, the defendants renewed their motion for a trial de novo. Defendants couple their request for a de novo trial with a request ...