California Appellate Court Reverses Dismissal of Injury Lawsuit Because Plaintiff’s Failure to Cooperate with Discovery Was Not Shown to be Willful

In a recent opinion by a California Court of Appeal, the issue was whether the lower court properly dismissed a plaintiff’s claims when the plaintiff did not fully cooperate with discovery requests in litigation proceedings.  The court stated that terminating sanctions and dismissal are appropriate in certain circumstances, but dismissal is a last resort.  In the case at hand, the court also considered the fact that dismissal left the defendant in a better position than he would have been in had the plaintiff responded to the discovery in a manner favorable to the defendant.

Plaintiff James Patton brought a lawsuit against Donald Martins, based on an incident that took place on April 16, 2011 when Mr. Patton was working as a security guard for a gated community.  Mr. Patton alleged that Mr. Martins, an electrical contractor, arrived at the community in his work truck and drove the wrong way through the gate. After Mr. Patton instructed Mr. Martins to turn around and reenter, an argument ensued, and Mr. Martins opened the driver’s side door to his truck violently, knocking Mr. Patton to the ground.  Mr. Patton suffered injuries, and witnesses said that Mr. Martins then drove away in his truck, running over Mr. Patton’s left leg as he did so.

Mr. Martins was arrested, and Mr. Patton filed a complaint alleging he suffered injuries, including psychiatric injuries, as a result of being pushed to the ground and run over by Mr. Martins’ truck.  Mr. Martins’ counsel made a demand for two separate psychiatric independent medical examinations (IMEs). Mr. Patton did not appear for either scheduled exam.  Then, Mr. Patton’s counsel moved to withdraw.

Mr. Martins moved for terminating sanctions, and Mr. Patton did not file any opposition but later stated in a proposed opposition that he did not receive notice of the IMEs until after their date had passed. The trial court granted the motion for terminating sanctions, stating that Mr. Patton had been fully aware of the need to file opposition or obtain new counsel, but he did neither.

Mr. Patton then filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing his failure to appear for the IMEs and failure to file an earlier opposition were based on inadvertent negligence related to his mental disability.  Mr. Patton then filed a notice of appeal on the ground that since he was never ordered to appear for an IME, the lower court lacked the power to dismiss his claims against Mr. Martins.

The appellate court rejected Mr. Patton’s argument and stated that the trial court had the authority to terminate the case.  Between the period of time when Mr. Patton failed to appear for the IMEs and the eventual hearing on the motion four months later, Mr. Patton absented himself from his responsibilities as a litigant. He did not communicate with his first counsel and then did not obtain new counsel when his first counsel withdrew.  The court stated that because of the concern that Mr. Patton deliberately ignored his responsibilities as a litigant, the trial court’s frustration and terminating sanctions were understandable.

Nevertheless, the appellate court stated that dismissal here was an abuse of discretion.  A dismissal should only be imposed as a last resort, when other sanctions have been considered and found ineffective. The sanction should not operate to put the prevailing party in a better position than he would have been in had he received the discovery sought and had it been favorable to his cause.

Aside from dismissal, sanctioning the willful disobedience of discovery obligations can include imposing attorney fees and expenses, issuing an order that facts be taken as established, striking pleadings, or staying the proceedings. Here, the ultimate dismissal sanction was not warranted because while there was an inference of willfulness, the issue had not been fully and directly litigated.  Mr. Patton’s psychiatric injuries were only a portion of his lawsuit against Mr. Martins, and they did not determine Mr. Martins’ liability to Mr. Patton or the extent of Mr. Patton’s alleged injuries.

The appellate court reversed the order dismissing Mr. Patton’s complaint.

At Sharifi Firm, our Southern California car accident attorneys provide personalized, efficient representation to injured individuals pursuing claims for compensation. We offer a no-obligation, free consultation and can be reached by calling 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeal Holds Government Not Liable for Injuries Suffered by Escaping Psychiatric Patient, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, May 12, 2016

California Appellate Court Affirms Finding of No Liability for Assault Against Man Outside Ozzy Osbourne Concert, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, April 21 2016

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