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Friday, June 21, 2013

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court issues one (so far) this afternoon

In Sharon Wright and Leslie Wright v. Anthony E. Miller, D.P.M., and Achilles Podiatry Group, an 11-page, 4-1 opinion, Chief Justice Dickson writes:

Plaintiffs Sharon and Leslie Wright appeal the striking of their expert witness and the dismissal of their medical malpractice claim against Dr. Anthony Miller and Achilles Podiatry Group pursuant to Trial Rules 37(B) and 41(E). We reverse. * * *

1. Enforcing Discovery and Trial Court Management Orders * * *

When challenged on appeal, trial court sanctions for failure to comply with court orders are reviewed for an abuse of discretion. McCullough v. Archbold Ladder Co., 605 N.E.2d 175, 180 (Ind. 1993). We presume that the trial court will "act in accord with what is fair and equitable in each case," and thus we will only reverse "if the trial court's decision is clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances before the court, or if the trial court has misinterpreted the law." Id. The conduct and equities will vary with each case, and we thus generally leave that determination to the sound discretion of the trial courts.

In the present case, we discern from the trial court's order of judgment and order denying the plaintiffs' motion to correct error that the court's decision to dismiss was predicated upon its determination excluding the plaintiffs' expert witness. It was the court's decision to exclude the witness that resulted from plaintiffs' counsel's persistent disregard and violation of the court's discovery and case management orders. For this reason, we will first address the propriety of the trial court's exclusion of the plaintiffs' expert witness. Then we will address the trial court's resulting dismissal decision.

2. Exclusion of Plaintiffs' Expert Witness

Applying the above principles, we find that the exclusion of the expert witness was in consistent with the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances before the court. * * *

While we critically view counsel's haphazard and disrespectful pattern of inattention to or disregard of the trial court’s management and discovery orders and deadlines, the prejudice to the defendants was minimal. * * *

We continue to recognize the trial court's inherent powers in "maintaining its dignity, securing obedience to its process and rules, rebuking interference with the conduct of business, and punishing unseemly behavior," Major, 822 N.E.2d at 169, and we encourage trial judges to actively oversee and manage the cases pending before them. The use and enforcement of case management orders and deadlines are essential to sound judicial administration. But we conclude that the circumstances of the present case warranted some lesser, preliminary, or more pointed sanction fashioned to address counsel's unsatisfactory conduct in this case without depriving the plaintiffs of their ability to present the merits of their case at trial. Accordingly, we hold that the trial court's exclusion of the plaintiffs' expert witness was inconsistent with the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances presented.

3. Dismissal of the Plaintiffs' Action

As noted above, the trial court's order of dismissal was directly grounded upon its decision to exclude the plaintiffs' expert witness for violation of discovery deadlines and its belief that the plaintiffs could not establish their case without such witness. Because we have concluded that such witness exclusion was erroneous, the basis for the resulting case dismissal evaporates and the granting of the defendants' motion to dismiss was likewise erroneous.

Conclusion

We reverse the trial court's order of judgment granting the defendants' motions to strike the plaintiffs' expert witness and to dismiss this action. These motions should have been denied. This cause is remanded for further proceedings.

Rucker, Massa, and Rush, JJ., concur.
David, J., concurs in part and dissents in part with separate opinion. [which begins, at p. 11 of 11] I concur in that portion of the majority opinion reversing dismissal of this case pursuant to the Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure. I agree that it was an abuse of discretion to dismiss the case entirely under the circumstances presented here. I also concur that a formulaic adherence to the factors from Wiseheart v. State, 491 N.E.2d 985 (Ind. 1986), diminishes the discretionary authority of the trial court judge to manage and maintain the dignity, business, and process of the court.

Nevertheless, I cannot concur with the subsequent reversal of the trial court’s decision to exclude Wright’s expert witness.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 21, 2013 02:51 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions