Ouachita Parish Medical Malpractice Case Reminds Litigants of the Importance of Meeting Litigation Deadlines

Previously on this blog, we have explored a number of cases where a party has faced defeat in court because of the failure to follow a procedural rule in litigation. Louisiana’s rules of civil procedure are designed to require a timely commencement to a suit and to ensure that the suit is then adjudicated in an expedient manner. Similar rules apply to the procedure for summary judgments. Motions either for or in opposition to summary judgments may be accompanied by affidavits (in fact, in some cases, affidavits are required). An affidavit must be filed no later than eight days prior to the hearing on the motion. La. C.C.P. art. 966(B). A party’s failure to observe this time requirement will result in the court’s excluding the affidavit from consideration. As the plaintiff in Sims v. Hawkins-Sheppard learned, such a failure can result in a dismissal of the case when the affidavit is critical to opposing summary judgment.

On May 22, 2009, Rebecca Sims sued Dr. Tonya Hawkins-Sheppard alleging medical malpractice after Sims’s son was severely injured and disfigured during delivery at the Glenwood Regional Medical Center in Ouachita Parish. During the discovery phase, Hawkins-Sheppard requested the identity of any medical expert who could support Sims’s claim of malpractice. Sims responded that she had not consulted a medical expert, and Hawkins-Sheppard filed a motion for summary judgment. A hearing on the motion was set for May 4, 2010. Sims requested, and was granted, a continuance of the hearing until July 7, 2010. Sims then filed an opposition to summary judgment that included an unsigned physician’s affidavit. Sims’s lawyer stated that the unsigned affidavit would be replaced with a valid affidavit before the scheduled hearing on the motion. No such substitution was made. On the day of the hearing, Sims explained to the trial judge that she had fired her lawyer and was seeking new counsel. Sims suggested that she had been misled by her attorney. Refusing to permit further delay, the judge went ahead with the hearing and then granted Hawkins-Sheppard’s motion for summary judgment. Sims appealed. The Second Circuit found that the trial court had abused its discretion in failing to permit Sims a reasonable amount of time to find new counsel and to substitute the unsigned affidavit with a valid, signed version. Hawkins-Sheppard then appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, which reached a different result. “[W]e find no abuse of the trial court’s discretion in this case,” the supreme court stated. “[Sims] failed to show ‘good cause’ under La. C.C.P. art. 966(B) why she should have been given additional time to file an opposing affidavit.” Consequently, the court concluded, there was no genuine
issue to the material fact that Sims was unable to prove that Hawkins-Sheppard breached the standard of care. A medical malpractice action is one that, on summary judgment, requires a valid affidavit containing a medical expert’s opinion on the issue of the doctor’s breach of duty. Had Sims’s motion been accompanied by a valid affidavit, she could have avoided the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. Thus, the court reversed the Court of Appeal and affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Hawkins-Sheppard.

The result in this case, though it may appear harsh to the plaintiff, points up the seriousness with which the Louisiana courts take the rules of civil procedure. For any plaintiff, retaining experienced and competent counsel is essential to ensuring that the case is not lost due to the failure to observe deadlines or the violation of some other procedural rule.

If you have been injured due to someone’s negligence, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help you obtain the recovery you deserve.