In this case, the Supreme Court reversed the Trial Court’s exclusion of a plaintiff’s expert witness and dismissal of the plaintiff’s case for repeatedly failing to comply with the Trial Court’s case management order and deadlines.
The plaintiff did not list their expert witness on any of the witness lists required by the Trial Court and failed to meet other deadlines imposed by the court, including: preliminary witness list (three days late), final witness list (eleven days late), statement of contentions (twenty-four days late), and final proposed jury instructions (ten days late). It appears, however, that the defendants were aware that the plaintiff intended on calling the expert.
Although the Supreme Court “critically view[ed] counsel's haphazard and disrespectful pattern of inattention to or disregard of the trial court’s management and discovery orders and deadlines,” the Court focused on the minimal prejudice to the defendants and found that the exclusion of the expert and dismissal were too harsh. The Court noted that in exercising its inherent power to manage its docket and enforce its orders, "the trial court should seek to apply sanctions which have a minimal [e]ffect on the evidence presented at trial and the merits of the case," Wiseheart, 491 N.E.2d at 990, keeping in mind "that sanctions should not be imposed when circumstances make sanctions unjust," Outback Steakhouse, 856 N.E.2d at 82.
The Court was careful to note that the Trial Court could have issued some lesser sanction, stating:
- 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.
Justice David dissented, in part, agreeing that dismissing the plaintiff’s claim was too harsh a sanction, but finding that the trial court’s decision to exclude the plaintiff’s expert witness was appropriate.
- 'Without seeking to enter the unsettled arena of whether such an expert witness is required in this type of case, I not only believe the exclusion was an appropriate exercise of the trial court’s discretion here, but I struggle to find a more appropriate sanction with which the trial court could have enforced its discovery deadlines and orders when Wright repeatedly failed to include Dr. Nash on her witness lists, filed those witness lists late (along with other delayed filings), and then failed to meet a discovery deadline that had already been extended at her request. "
- "While this may not have prejudiced Dr. Miller to the point that dismissal of the action entirely was appropriate, to me it demonstrates a patterned lack of regard for the Trial Rules and the trial court’s authority, much less the successful pursuit of Wright’s own case. Accordingly, I would find no abuse of discretion in striking Wright’s expert witness and therefore respectfully dissent."
Justice David raises a good point that the majority opinion does not address. What would be an appropriate sanction for repeated failures to comply with Court orders when prejudice is minimal to the opposing party? Presumably, because the Supreme Court has now held that excluding evidence is impermissible, Trial Courts will be left to order monetary sanctions against non-compliant parties or attorneys.
Finally, it is important to note that this case involved a situation where the defendants were not prejudiced by the plaintiff’s untimely identification of witnesses. In many instances, late disclosures will prejudice an opposing party. The lesson from this case is that for the exclusion of evidence or dismissal to be appropriate, a party seeking sanctions must demonstrate prejudice.