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LA: Client Misconduct Trumps Lawyer Malpractice

Hutchinson v. Westport Insurance Corporation, 886 So.2d 438 (La. 2004)

LA: Underlying Personal Injury Action

Student Contributor: Laura Stein

Facts: Plaintiffs filed legal malpractice action against defendant law firm and its insurer for failure to timely file an action for damages sustained by the minor child in a car accident. Hutchinson was representing herself and her son pro se. Plaintiffs served interrogatories and requests for production of documents on the plaintiffs seeking discovery for the trial. Plaintiffs failed to comply with the discovery and defendants filed a motion to dismiss. The trial court dismissed the case and on appeal, that judgment was reversed. The LA Supreme Court granted the defendants’ write and reversed.

Issue: Whether the district court abused its discretion in imposing the sanction of dismissal for plaintiffs’ failure to comply with its discovery order.

Ruling: There are four factors to be considered before a court takes the drastic action of dismissal: whether the violation was willful or resulted from inability to comply; whether less drastic sanctions would be effective; whether the violations prejudiced the opposing party’s trial preparation; and whether the client participated in the violation or simply misunderstood a court order or innocently hired a derelict attorney. The Supreme Court found that although dismissal is a harsh remedy, this case was deserving of a harsh remedy as these tactics delay and frustrate the judicial system: the record was fraught with evidence of Hutchinson’s willful disobedience and fault to justify dismissal. Much of the discovery was very simple, e.g. name, date of birth of injured, names of hospitals, copies of medical bills, etc. Her failure to cooperate made it impossible for the defense to proceed and placed them at a disadvantage if they were to proceed without the discovery.

Lesson: Litigants cannot refuse to make a good faith effort to respond to discovery and if they do they “run the risk of incurring sanctions” up to and including dismissal and default.

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Posted in: Louisiana, Torts/Personal Injury