A trial court should not have dismissed the plaintiff’s no-fault case with prejudice because of the plaintiff’s “unavailability,” which stemmed from the fact that he was arrested on an outstanding warrant on the first day of trial, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.
In Johnson v Farmers Ins Exchange (Docket No. 331725, unpublished opinion issued 4/12/18), the Court of Appeals emphasized that a trial court must consider the factors in Vicencio v Ramirez, 211 Mich App 501 (1995), before imposing such a harsh sanction as outright dismissal of a case.
It is an abuse of discretion to dismiss a case without first carefully evaluating all the options on the record and finding that dismissal is “just and proper,” the Court of Appeals said. “We do not suggest that plaintiff had no obligation to resolve his warrants or pay his traffic tickets, but it is an unconscionable result when, in effect, these warrants become a reason to deny plaintiff the opportunity to litigate no-fault claims entirely unrelated to the warrants.”
According to the Court of Appeals, while the plaintiff may have been lawfully arrested in the courtroom, “the fact remains that even prisoners have the right to access the courts … and, while the timing of plaintiff’s arrest may have been inconvenient for the trial schedule, it is profoundly unjust that someone appearing in court, ready to litigate his claims, should have his case dismissed because he was arrested and taken away from the courtroom. Such a harsh result, particularly when the trial court failed to consider other options and to evaluate the Vicencio factors, falls outside the range of reasonable and principled outcomes.”
The plaintiff alleged he was injured in an October 2012 auto accident. He filed this lawsuit seeking no-fault benefits from the defendant, Farmers Insurance Exchange.
A trial in the matter was scheduled for June 23, 2015. On that date, the plaintiff and his lawyer appeared in court, at which time the plaintiff was arrested on an outstanding warrant and taken away by Wayne County Sheriff’s deputies. Over the objections of the plaintiff’s lawyer, the trial court ruled the case should be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to appear at trial.
The plaintiff’s lawyer then filed a motion for an adjournment until a writ could be issued for the plaintiff’s appearance or until the plaintiff could be released on bond. Despite this, the trial court dismissed the case with prejudice, concluding the plaintiff failed to appear.
The plaintiff later filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing the trial should have continued the proceedings in his absence because there is not a rule mandating a party’s attendance at trial. The trial court denied the motion.
Dismissal is a ‘Drastic’ Step
On appeal, the plaintiff argued the trial court wrongly dismissed his case, asserting that dismissal was a harsh sanction that wasn’t justified, particularly because a party does not have to be present during trial and the plaintiff’s attorney was present to proceed in the plaintiff’s absence.
The plaintiff also claimed the trial court abused its discretion by not considering lesser sanctions and not considering the factors in Vicencio. According to the plaintiff, the Vicencio factors did not favor dismissal of his case and it was unjust to deny him an opportunity to litigate his claims.
“We agree,” the Court of Appeals said, noting that trial courts have the inherent authority to sanction litigants and also have the authority to dismiss lawsuits. “However, ‘[d]ismissal is a drastic step that should be taken cautiously.’”
Before a court imposes dismissal as a sanction, it “must carefully evaluate all available options on the record and conclude that dismissal is just and proper,” the Court of Appeals explained. Some of the factors that a trial court should consider are: 1) whether the violation was willful; 2) the party’s history of refusing to comply with court orders; 3) any prejudice to the opposing party; 4) whether there is a history of deliberate delay; 5) the degree of compliance with other court orders; 6) attempts to cure any defects; and 7) whether a lesser sanction would better serve the interests of justice.
Here, the trial court abused its discretion when it dismissed the plaintiff’s case with prejudice based on his unavailability on the first day of trial, which arose from his arrest in the courtroom when he appeared in the case, the Court of Appeals observed. “First, the trial court dismissed the case without considering other possible options or evaluating the factors set forth in Vicencio. … By dismissing the case without first considering other options on the record, the trial court abused its discretion.”
Second, “it is readily apparent that these factors do not support the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “To begin with, plaintiff’s absence from trial cannot be characterized as willful. To the contrary, it is undisputed that he actually appeared and was ready to proceed with the trial; but, he was arrested and involuntarily taken out of the courtroom. Such facts do not show a willful failure to appear.”
Moreover, there was no indication the plaintiff had a history of delay or that the defendant was prejudiced by the plaintiff’s unavailability, the Court of Appeals said. In addition, other options were available, such as allowing the plaintiff’s attorney to proceed in his client’s absence.
According to the Court of Appeals, if the trial court had concluded that the plaintiff’s presence was required for the case to move forward, then the matter could have been adjourned until the plaintiff could arrange for release on bond or until a writ could be issued for him to appear to testify in court, or until other arrangements could be made for the presentation of the plaintiff’s testimony.
“The trial court failed to even consider these other possibilities before dismissing plaintiff’s case,” the Court of Appeals stated.
‘Gross Miscarriage Of Justice’
The defendant argued on appeal that, under Vicencio, the plaintiff willfully violated court orders and failed to cure the defect because the trial court had warned the plaintiff to resolve his outstanding warrants before trial, but he did not do so.
“Although this pretrial warning by the trial court was not transcribed and does not appear in the record, the parties agree that, during a pretrial conference, the trial court verbally warned plaintiff that he could be arrested if he appeared for trial without resolving the warrant issue,” the Court of Appeals said. “This off-the-record warning was never reduced to a written order requiring plaintiff to resolve the warrants.”
Despite this, the defendant claimed the plaintiff had an obligation to follow the trial court’s verbal instruction and that his failure to do so justified the dismissal of the plaintiff’s case.
The Court of Appeals disagreed. “[W]e view it as an abuse of discretion to dismiss plaintiff’s no-fault claims because plaintiff failed to abide by the trial court’s order to resolve a warrant issue which appears to be wholly unrelated to the no-fault claims in this case. Certainly, litigants have an obligation to obey court orders, and they may be punished for failing to do so. … But, litigants also have a right of access to the courts … and our legal system favors disposition of cases on the merits.”
According to the Court of Appeals, “it is a gross miscarriage of justice for a trial court to give an order, verbal or written, that essentially conditions a plaintiff’s ability to litigate his no-fault claims on his payment of unrelated traffic tickets and to then dismiss his case with prejudice because he is arrested — apparently at the behest of the trial court and/or defense counsel — on outstanding warrants completely unrelated to the merits of the parties’ civil dispute.”