Florida Appellate Court Rules Inconsistent Testimony Is Not Enough to Warrant Dismissal

In Gautreaux v. Maya, a Florida appellate court considered a dismissal of a personal injury lawsuit based upon an alleged fraud upon the court. The case arose from an automobile accident. The plaintiff claimed continuing migraine headaches as a result of an accident caused by the defendant’s negligence.

The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit. He claimed that the plaintiff had falsely claimed she never had headaches before the accident. At the motion hearing, the defendant presented deposition testimony to this effect. During the same month, however, a neurologist examined her. The neurologist’s report of the examination revealed that the medical assistant had noted that the plaintiff did not previously have the symptoms of headache.

During his deposition, however, the neurologist clarified that the plaintiff had experienced headaches in the past, but not of this type. A little over two years before the car accident, the plaintiff had experienced frequent headaches. A year before the accident, she arrived at the ER complaining of pain and eye pressure. In the nurse’s report for the visit, which was obtained after the plaintiff referenced the visit in her answer to interrogatories, she had complained of a headache and that she had a history of chronic headache. The defendant moved to dismiss claiming that this inconsistent or dishonest testimony showed the plaintiff perpetrated a fraud on the court.

A second deposition was taken after the motion to dismiss was filed. The plaintiff tried to clarify that the question about headaches confused her because it referenced headaches in the plural and she considered the experience that brought her to the ER “sinus pressure behind her eye.” Nonetheless, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion, dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice for fraud on the court.

The plaintiff appealed, claiming reversible error. The appellate court explained that fraud on the court requires a showing that a party consciously put in motion an unconscionable scheme designed to interfere with the judicial system’s ability to impartially judge the matter. The scheme must be calculated to influence the trier of fact or alter the opposing party’s claim or defense.

The appellate court reasoned that finding a fraud upon the court was only appropriate in truly outrageous cases because it was the most severe sanction. The Florida Constitution guarantees that every person can seek redress in the courts. Since dismissing a case on the basis of fraud meant the end of a lawsuit, judges are expected to use this sanction sparingly.

The appellate court further reasoned that simple inconsistencies, nondisclosure, forgetfulness, and even lying could not be considered a “fraud upon the court”. This finding required blatant fraud, pretense, collusion, or another similar type of wrongdoing. The appellate court ruled that in the case before it, there was merely a testimonial discrepancy, not a scheme. The facts of this case did not meet the standard to show fraud on the court because there was no scheme calculated to evade the questions or prevent discovery.

If you have been injured due to another person’s negligence, call the experienced South Florida car accident attorneys of Friedman, Rodman & Frank for a consultation at 877-448-8585. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and offer free and confidential consultations.

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