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Can a Judge Dismiss a Personal Injury Lawsuit for Failing to Meet Discovery Deadlines?

When you file a personal injury lawsuit following a car accident, you need to be aware of the importance of deadlines. For example, there is a statute of limitations, which is the deadline imposed by Georgia law to file a lawsuit. Even after the lawsuit is filed, the trial court will impose numerous deadlines that must be followed.

Lyons v. O’Quinn

Among the important deadlines are those involving discovery–that is, the pretrial period in which the plaintiff and the defendant exchange documents and conduct depositions of witnesses. If either party fails to meet the stated discovery deadlines, the judge may impose sanctions, which in the case of the plaintiff’s non-compliance may include dismissal of the lawsuit outright.

Here is a recent Georgia personal injury case, Lyons v. O’Quinn, in which this actually happened. This case involves a fatal car accident. The plaintiff survived the accident, and he alleged that the other driver–who died–was responsible. The plaintiff subsequently sued the deceased driver’s employer, alleging it was vicariously liable since she was “operating her vehicle within the scope and course of her employment” at the time of the accident.

Several months into the litigation, the defense moved to dismiss the case due to the plaintiff’s failure to respond to various discovery requests. The plaintiff asked the judge for an extension of time, which he claimed was necessary due to his attorney’s health problems. The court eventually granted an extension, but said it would not tolerate any further delay.

Unfortunately, the plaintiff failed to comply with the new deadline. He asked for yet another extension but the judge, true to his word, denied that request. The judge gave the plaintiff seven days to comply or face additional sanctions, including dismissal.

The plaintiff failed to comply. The judge held the plaintiff in civil contempt and find him approximately $2,300. Two weeks later, the plaintiff asked for reconsideration, again citing his attorney’s ongoing health problems. By this point, the judge had clearly had enough. He denied the motion for reconsideration and dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit with prejudice, meaning he could not refile the case.

The plaintiff appealed. (The plaintiff’s attorney was apparently suspended while the appeal was pending, so the plaintiff represented himself without counsel.) In August, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta affirmed the trial judge’s decision. Although the Court acknowledged that “dismissal with prejudice is the most severe sanction and used as a last resort,” it is nevertheless an appropriate remedy when, as here, the plaintiff “willfully disregarded the court’s previous orders, failed to participate in discovery, and had received a warning about possible dismissal.”

Furthermore, the 11th Circuit said the trial court did not “abuse its discretion” in denying the plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, as he merely “included arguments he had already made in prior motions.” The Court said a motion to reconsider is not an invitation to “relitigate” previously decided issues or present new issues not raised the first time.