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New York Appellate Division Says Trial Court Was Wrong to Grant Summary Judgment on Liability as a Discovery Sanction in Medical Malpractice Case

A Syracuse medical malpractice lawsuit can take a long time to resolve. For starters, an investigation must be conducted, an expert must be retained, and suit must be filed – and that’s just to get the case started.

As matters progress, the parties usually exchange discovery requests in order to learn more about the evidence that will likely be presented at trial. This process takes at least a few months, and often much longer. In some cases, there can be additional complications that create unexpected delays, such as the filing of a bankruptcy petition by a party or its insurance company.

Facts of the Case

In a recent appellate case arising in the Supreme Court, Erie County, the plaintiff was a man who filed suit in 2011, seeking compensation for injuries that he allegedly suffered due to the negligence of the defendant health care center’s agents and employees. The parties exchanged discovery requests the following year, but then the action was dormant for several years as the plaintiff pursued relief from the defendant’s insurer in out-of-state bankruptcy proceedings. In late 2016, the plaintiff revived the action by resubmitting the discovery demands that he had originally made in 2012.

In 2017, the trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions, struck the defendant’s answer on the issue of liability, and deemed all liability issues resolved in the plaintiff’s favor. The defendant appealed.

Holding of the Court

The Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department, modified the lower court’s judgment to deny summary judgment on the issue of liability. The court also added a provision effectively granting the defendant three months in which to submit its discovery responses and pay the plaintiff $3000 in attorney fees (or else it would face additional negative consequences). In the court’s opinion, the trial court’s order granting summary judgment on the issue of liability had been premature, given that the affidavit of the plaintiff’s expert witness was conclusory and offered opinions and conclusions that the expert was not competent to render.

While a trial court may impose sanctions for a party’s failure to comply with discovery requests, the court’s decision is reviewable for an abuse of discretion by the appellate tribunal, who has the ability to substitute its own discretion for that of the trial court’s. Here, the reviewing court noted that a pleading is only to be struck when a party’s failure to comply with discovery demands was “willful, contumacious, or in bad faith.” In the appellate court’s opinion, the plaintiff had not established that the defendant’s failure to respond was “willful or contumacious” but merely that the defendant had engaged in “repeated noncompliance.” In so holding, the court noted that the plaintiff had also failed to comply with the trial court’s “fresh start” scheduling order following the revival of the action, providing a medical authorization only 18 days before discovery was to be completed.

Syracuse Medical Negligence Attorneys Reviewing New Cases

It is important to speak to an attorney as soon as possible if you believe that you have been the victim of medical malpractice by a doctor, nurse, hospital, or other healthcare provider. To schedule a free consultation with the Syracuse medical malpractice attorneys of DeFrancisco & Falgiatano, LLP Personal Injury Lawyers, call us now at 315-479-9000. There’s no charge for the consultation, and no attorney fee is collected unless we recover a favorable settlement or judgment in your case.

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