Courts generally operate according to established procedures and use deadlines. For example, if a plaintiff misses a deadline in a personal injury action, the court may dismiss the claim. In the case of Taylor v. HCA-HealthONE LLC (2018), a Colorado appeals court was asked to review a lower court's dismissal of a medical negligence claim after Taylor failed to comply with rule 4(m) of the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure titled “The Limit for Service.” The plaintiff had failed to meet the deadline date for serving the defendant. After the dismissal, the statute of limitations had then expired, barring Taylor from being able to file the complaint again. Plaintiff counsel explained that a technical computer system malfunction was the cause of the unforeseen delay.
The lower court did not hold a hearing and simply found the failure in timely service was not excusable and dismissed Taylor's motion. Taylor's counsel asked the court to reconsider and submitted a more detailed summary of the docketing system problem. An affidavit explained that the attorney's calendar and management software became disabled and all the data relating to upcoming deadlines were deleted. A technician from the software provider was needed to resolve the problem. After enabling the system, the technician noted that once reestablished, only some of the deleted deadlines on the schedule were automatically restored.
During the appeal, Taylor alleged that the lower court order to dismiss the case had been erroneous. Taylor's counsel originally contended that such a dismissal required some advanced notice. The appeals court disagreed, saying that notice was not required once the service deadline had already passed.
Next, the plaintiff argued that the court should have been required to use a three-factor test based on the case of Craig v. Rider (1982). The three-factor “Craig test” seeks to balance and thoroughly examine the factors in the rule 60(b) motions by considering key factors:
- Was the neglect excusable?
- Does the moving party have a worthy claim?
- Would reversal of the order of dismissal be considered as an equitable consideration and prevent prejudice?
The Colorado Supreme Court had affirmed in the past that these factors should be considerations in such situations. Also, a general rule that applies when evaluating a court decision should be “liberally construed in the moving party's favor,” particularly if the motion was made quickly (prompt). Under these situations, the court can better evaluate accidental mistakes or surprises.
Courts have long promoted deciding disputes based on their merits. The concept of excusable neglect encourages analyzing the reason(s) why the mistake occurred and to consider relevant circumstances. The court chose to judiciously weigh the evidence based on legal standards. Neglect may be excusable if a reasonable and prudent person would likely have neglected a duty based on the set of circumstances, including unexpected situations that caused the oversight.
The court seeks to base decisions of dismissal in an equitable manner that supports justice. One equitable consideration for the court is how promptly the party moved to seek relief. Another is if the reversal of the lower court's dismissal would be prejudicial for the other (opposing) party?
Excusable Neglect Could Be a Worthy Excuse for Missing a Court Deadline
The court found Taylor acted promptly in response to the court's dismissal of the action—on the same day. The district court did not hold a hearing when denying the plaintiff motion and thus Taylor was unable to properly elaborate on the circumstances involved. The appeals court found relief in the case would be in accordance with reasonable equitable considerations and that the “Craig test” would be proper in truly evaluating this mishap. The appeals court vacated the district court decision and remanded the case back down to the lower court for application of the proper three-part test.
Errors or mistakes generally have consequences, such as when someone demonstrates negligence or carelessness that results in injuries to another. The same applies in adherence to the procedural aspects of civil actions. In this case, the plaintiff inadvertently missed a critical deadline and almost did not have an opportunity to pursue recovery. This is another example of why it is important to retain an experienced attorney that is familiar with practicing personal injury law.