Can a Louisiana Court Impose a Default Judgment for Failure to Obey Pretrial Orders?

stations_cross_jesus_pilateIn a bizarre turn of events, an attempt to get unpaid wages from a Terrebonne Parish video store owner turned violent and led to the appeal discussed below. The appeal delved into the standards that Louisiana courts consider when it comes to repeated violations of their pretrial orders. The case below answers the question; Can a Louisiana court impose a default judgment for failure to obey pretrial orders?

Ronald Guste, the grandfather of a Tiger Audio employee, confronted Earl Lirette, the owner of Tiger Audio, about wages owed to Mr. Guste’s grandson. Mr. Lirette lept around the counter and knocked Mr. Guste to the ground, causing injuries to his back and hip that would require treatment and surgery. 

Mr. and Mrs. Guste brought a lawsuit against both Tiger Audio and Mr. Lirette for damages from the injury, including loss of consortium for Mrs. Guste. At trial, the Gustes moved for penalties against the defendants, noting that neither Tiger Audio nor Mr. Lirette had complied with mandatory pretrial deadlines. The trial court denied the defendants’ counterargument of lack of notice and found in favor of penalizing the defendants. These penalties included the refusal to allow them to call any witnesses or present any defenses, thereby executing a default trial in which the defendants were to lose automatically. The court found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them upwards of $350,000. The defendants’ motion for a new trial was denied, and this appeal followed. 

The trial court has a lot of freedom in deciding how to enforce pretrial orders. Therefore, the standard of review for enforcing pretrial orders limits the appellate court to overturn the trial court’s decision only if there is a gross abuse of discretion. La. C.C.P. art. 1551. A court may impose sanctions for failure to obey a pretrial order in the form of monetary damages, denial of admittance of evidence, a stay of proceedings, a default judgment, and a dismissal of the action. La. C.C.P. art. 1551C.

The appellate court relied on the interpretation of penalties in Benware v. Means, 753 So. 2d 841 (La. 2000). A dismissal or default judgment should be reserved only for cases in which the client and their attorney have shown gross negligence or bad faith. The party must also be aware that a default judgment could occur due to their actions. Determining penalties is a question of fact determinant on each situation’s unique circumstances. The court in Benware used four factors to be considered: 1. Whether the attorney or client (or both) were disobedient, 2. The stage of the proceeding at which the violation occurred, 3. Existence of unfairness to the other side as a result of the disobedience, and 4. The nature and extent of the misconduct. See Benware, 752 So. 2d at 847.

In this case, the pretrial order violations were by Mr. Lirette, representing himself, and Tiger Audio, which had yet to respond or appear. The violations occurred at various stages of the pretrial schedule and without any motions to compel from the plaintiffs. As to the third Benware factor, the appellate court found that the plaintiffs never established any prejudice that had resulted from the misconduct. Finally, the fourth factor weighs in favor of Mr. Lirette as he represented himself. A layman who represents himself is expected to be accountable to a different standard of conduct than a lawyer who has taken an oath. See Benware, 752 So. 2d at 848. As such, the extreme sanctions of the default judgment by the trial court were found to be overly harsh. The appellate court reversed and remanded the case to be tried again at the trial court level. 

This case demonstrates the procedural challenges that self-represented clients can face when attempting to navigate complicated requirements of the law. Additionally, Mr. and Mrs. Guste should have made motions to compel the information requested in the pretrial order, thereby making a good-faith effort to obtain the missing information. The substantive claim of Mr. Guste’s injury was not at issue in this appeal, thereby showing the importance of adherence to procedure in seeking remedies for injuries. 

Additional Sources: GUSTE V. LIRETTE

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Corrinne Yoder-Mulkey

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