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Justices divided on proper sanction for attorney actions

January 18, 2012

The majority of Indiana Supreme Court justices found the trial court was within its discretion to dismiss a personal injury action because of the plaintiff’s attorney’s actions.

In Rickey D. Whitaker v. Travis M. Becker, No. 02S03-1201-CT-27, the justices granted transfer to the Allen County case, but came to different conclusions as to how the actions of Rickey Whitaker’s attorney should be handled. Whitaker filed a personal injury lawsuit against Travis Becker following a car accident. Whitaker’s attorney ignored repeated requests to provide information about his client’s medical treatment, and when he did respond, the attorney gave false and misleading information. Whitaker claimed he was waiting to have back surgery because he didn’t have any money to pay for the surgery when at the time of the sworn response, he already had the surgery scheduled.

Becker’s attorney didn’t find out about the surgery until Whitaker’s attorney sent a letter – the day the surgery happened. Becker’s counsel argued that the surgery seriously undermined the value of a post-operative examination in helping to establish whether the accident or Whitaker’s preexisting degenerative disc disease caused his bulging disc condition because the surgery would have removed part of the disc.

The Allen Circuit Court granted Becker’s attorney’s request for dismissal of the case. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, reinstating the case and ordering Whitaker pay $625 of Becker’s attorney fees. Justice Frank Sullivan agreed with the COA’s decision, but three of the justices agreed that the trial court’s dismissal was the appropriate action.

“We think an experienced trial judge could easily conclude that a surgery to remove a disc and fuse two vertebrae together would generate evidentiary problems for a defendant trying to prove that the plaintiff’s need for surgery really resulted from a preexisting condition — a degenerative disc disease,” wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard for the majority.

Justice Robert Rucker also dissented without opinion.

 

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