Saturday, May 5, 2007

Maddox v. Stone (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed May 2, 2007--Opinion by Judge Timothy Meredith.

Maddox, individually and as parent of her minor children, presents the following questions:

(1) Because the plaintiffs' expert witness died, leaving them with no expert to testify, should the plaintiffs have been permitted to substitute an expert?

(2) Because the plaintiffs complied with the scheduling order, did the circuit court abuse its discretion in striking their original expert witness?

The Court held that the circuit court abused its discretion in striking one of Maddox's other expert witnesses ("Wald") because of a lack of strict compliance with the scheduling order. Accordingly, there was no need to reach the question of whether, upon learning of the death of Maddox's other expert witness ("Hauf"), the circuit court abused its discretion in not allowing Maddox to substitute the earlier stricken expert for the deceased expert.

The Court reasoned that, while it is true that the Maryland Rules of Procedure are to be strictly followed, the discovery rules in particular are to be liberally construed in order to effectuate their purpose. Maddox maintained that they had met the "substantial compliance" or "good faith and earnest effort" test because Wald was named two weeks before the scheduling order deadline and his report was provided to opposing counsel immediately as soon as it was available; 34 days after the deadline but well in advance of trial and prior to the closing of discovery. Further, Wald was made available for deposition and was, in fact, deposed over two full months prior to trial and prior to the date established in the scheduling order for completion of all discovery. Maddox argued that, because Wald was deposed well in advance of trial, Stone was not deprived of the ability to prepare a proper defense.

The governing principle is that the appropriate sanction for a discovery or scheduling order violation is largely discretionary with the trial court. The more draconian sanctions of dismissing a claim or precluding the evidence necessary to support a claim are normally reserved for persistent and deliberate violations that actually cause some prejudice. The scheduling order is not meant to function as a statute of limitations, and good faith substantial compliance with the scheduling order is ordinarily sufficient to forestay a case-ending sanction. Accordingly, although the decision of whether to exclude a key witness because of a party's failure to meet the deadlines in a scheduling order is generally committed to the discretion of the trial court, the imposition of such a draconian sanction must be supported by circumstances that warrant the exercise of the court's discretion in such a manner -- the trial record must contain an analysis of the relevant facts and circumstances that resulted in the exercise of the judge's discretion and not simply some applied predetermined position.

This opinion is not to say that trial counsel and litigants are free to treat scheduling orders as mere suggestions or imprecise guidelines for trial preparation. Scheduling orders must be given respect as orders of the circuit court, and the court may, under appropriate circumstances, impose sanctions upon parties who fail to comply with the deadlines in scheduling orders.

The full Opinion Available in PDF.

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