It is vital to know proper court procedures at the outset of litigation or else an otherwise valid claim might be thrown out of court without ever being heard. One prime example is the need to send initial court documents to a defendant within a set deadline (sending such documents, such as a citation or summons, is known as service of process). Case in point, the Lafayette Parish Court of Appeal, in Boka v. Oller, recently upheld the dismissal of a claim without even considering the merits because service of process was delivered too late. Therefore, it is important to know the rules before bringing a lawsuit or a good claim might be lost due to a mere technicality, such as delivering papers too late. For a non-lawyer, an attorney can be instrumental in making sure proper procedures are followed so that the party has a chance to present their case in court.
In Lafayette Parish, Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure Article 1201 requires that service of the citation must be requested within a deadline of ninety days from commencement of the action. Article 1201 also notes that service of process on defendants is “essential” and “without them all proceedings are absolutely null.” The deadline for service is to ensure that defendants are aware of an action and have enough to prepare. Therefore, as a delay in service is deemed unfair to the defendant, a court may dismiss a claim if service of process is sent too late.
There are some limited exceptions to the rule, but, due to the risks involved in these exceptions, generally a party should attempt to serve process on time. For example, one exception permits late service if there is good cause for the delay. However, as the court is unlikely to accept run-of-the-mill excuses for delays, proving a good cause for failure to serve process on time can be difficult. As noted below, the court in Lafayette Parish found that there was no good cause for late service as the plaintiff knew the defendant’s address.
Another exception is that the defendant may waive the requirement that process be served on them, but this should by no means be expected. As the plaintiff in Lafayette Parish learned the hard way, a defendant will often choose not to waive the requirement as they can avoid all liability if they successfully object to late service. Article 1201 does require a defendant to expressly assert thier defense of late service or else the defendant will be deemed to have waived such defense. However, the Lafayette case shows a defendant was able to successfully assert such a defense nearly two years after the case was underway. In this way, a plaintiff can invest much time, money, and effort into litigation, and have it all lost by a simple procedural rule that was overlooked at the beginning.
Another way out might be to attempt an appeal, but the standard to appeal a decision dismissing a claim for late service is high as it requires the party to prove that the trial judge made a manifest error or applied a clearly wrong standard. The difficulty of an appeal is compounded by the fact that losing an appeal can be costly as the party that loses, as occurred in the Lafayette case, can be ordered to pay the other party’s costs of defending the appeal. One might be tempted to think that a court may be forgiving, but, as the Lafayette case shows, an appeal on such an issue can be very hard to win.
In Lafayette Parish, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim of fraud because the plaintiff had failed to request service of his original petition to be made on the defendant. After roughly two years, the defendant finally asserted that he had never been properly served, and the trial court agreed. The trial court found that the plaintiff had missed the deadline for service and that there was no good cause for the delay.
The plaintiff then appealed the decision, but failed to convince the appeals court. The plaintiff could not prove that the trial judge made a manifest error or applied a clearly wrong standard, and so the plaintiff did not meet the high burden for appealing a dismissal for failure to timely serve process. The appeals court found that the court record showed that no service of process was ever requested by the plaintiff and that, even though the defendant was eventually served after nearly two years by the clerk of court, such service was long after the ninety days required by law. The appeals court also found that there was no good cause for the delay in service as the plaintiff knew the defendant’s address. Therefore, the appeals court upheld the decision dismissing the claim for late service of process. On top of that, the appeals court ordered the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s costs for the appeal.
The case in Lafayette Parish presents a stark reminder of the importance of properly following court procedures, as the entire case was dismissed after nearly two years merely for the failure to send service of process on the defendant on time. It is important to note that the deadline for service is only one of a many technical procedural rules that can completely bar a claim regardless of whether a person was actually injured. A case can and often will be dismissed if a party fails to comply with technical requirements of the court. Overcoming the hurdles of court procedures can be a daunting task for the uninitiated and lead to serious consequences.
If you are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the complex legal procedure facing your case, call the Berniard Law Firm today to speak with an attorney immediately.