The Impoverished Plaintiff and the Assessment of Court Costs

The Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure generally affords the trial court wide discretion in assessing the costs of litigation to one or more of the parties. “Except as otherwise provided by law, the court may render judgment for costs, or any part thereof, against
any party, as it may consider equitable.” La. C.C.P. Art. 1920. The expenses that the court can tax as costs include the fees of the court clerk or sheriff, witness’ fees, costs of taking depositions, and the cost of photocopies of laws, regulations, medical reports, and hospital records used during the trial. So great is the trial court’s discretion, in fact, that the trial court’s assessment can be overturned only upon a showing of abuse of discretion.

As mentioned, though, there are limitations in the law to the trial court’s authority. For instance, special provisions exist for allocating costs in workers’ compensation cases as well as those involving a plaintiff who proceeds in forma pauperis (through a pauper’s action). The recent case of Curry v. HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital illustrates that one path to reversible error on the part of the trial judge is running afoul of the special rules for impoverished plaintiffs.

Matha Curry, an elderly stroke survivor, visited the HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital in Homer, Louisiana on August 29, 2002 for physical therapy. While under the care of a nurse technician, Curry fell and fractured her arm in two places. She subsequently filed a pauper’s suit against the hospital, which admitted fault for the accident. The trial court reviewed the depositions of Curry, the nurse technician, and two physicians. It awarded Curry $30,000 in general damages for pain and suffering and $3,199 in special damages for medical expenses. Court costs were assessed against the hospital. The court assessed the costs of one of the physician’s depositions, to which Curry’s lawyer was late by three hours, against Curry. It also ordered the costs of the medical records used during the trial and the costs of the second physician’s deposition to be shared equally between Curry and the hospital. Curry appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in assessing costs against her. The Second Circuit Court of Appeal noted that the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure includes special rules for the waiver of costs for indigent plaintiffs. In sum, the Code provides that the defendant is liable for paying the impoverished plaintiff’s costs if the plaintiff prevails. The hospital argued that the cost-sharing for one deposition and medical records was fair in light of Curry’s last minute refusal, prior to the trial, to execute the settlement agreement that accompanied the settlement check that she deposited and was later forced to return. However, the court stated, “While we are sympathetic to the frustrations experienced by [the hospital] in its good-faith attempt to settle the matter, the [pauper] provisions … are mandatory. The assessment of the costs … against Curry was an abuse of discretion.” Likewise, the court rejected the hospital’s argument that the assessment of the costs of the deposition to which Curry’s attorney arrived late was permissible as a penalty because “[t]he trial court never referred to it as a sanction.” Accordingly, the court reversed the portion of the trial court’s judgment that assessed costs against Curry and instead taxed all costs of the action to the hospital.

This case, while perhaps somewhat unusual in that it involved an impoverished plaintiff, is instructive on the issue of the costs of litigation. Especially in cases involving expert witnesses or significant documents, records, or other paperwork, ancillary costs can add up quickly. It is important for any plaintiff to understand the trial court’s role in assessing costs so that a successful judgment is not unduly reduced by these expenses.