New Maryland Medical Malpractice Opinion on When a Final Judgment Is Entered

This blog post summarizes Mattison v. Gelber, a new Maryland Court of Appeals opinion in a medical malpractice case with a unique issue with respect to whether there was an entry of final judgment without an award of costs. You can go to the jump at the bottom of the post. I take the dog for a short walk in the introduction.

When I started practicing law, one of the first cases that I was given was a plaintiff’s legal malpractice case. Except for a subrogation case – which really does not count as a plaintiff’s case – it was the only plaintiff’s case that I had in my first four years as a lawyer. Now, it has been ten years since I was on the other side of the books

Anyway, in the malpractice case, the lawyer blew the time for filing a post-verdict appeal. He blew in the most bizarre way possible: he filed his Notice of Appeal too early before final judgment had been entered.

The idea of committing legal malpractice for doing something too early stuck with me. I have been paranoid to this day about deadlines in general but, in particular, post-judgment motions. In Mattison v. Gelber, the court dealt with facts that validate my paranoia.

This case started, as many malpractice claims do, with a battle over venue. Plaintiff filed in Prince George’s County against two doctors. There is not a medical malpractice attorney in Maryland who would not prefer Prince George’s County to anywhere else (possible exception: Baltimore City). But the malpractice happened in Howard County, one of the toughest places in Maryland to try a malpractice case. The Prince George’s County Circuit Court transferred the case, it did what it likes to do if there is a venue of issue: kick it out of their court.

The opinion does not explain what type of medical malpractice Mattison involved. But Plaintiff sued two doctors and got a defense verdict against one doctors – actually the doctor’s estate, he died after the alleged malpractice, which had to make for an odd trial – for $811,162.73. (I think there was coverage, but the opinion was unclear.) The second doctor that was sued got a defense verdict.

Plaintiff appealed the defense verdict for the second doctor because of the doctor’s failure to fully comply with discovery. What was the discovery failure? I don’t know. The court does not mention the alleged violations and I can’t find the parties’ brief in the case (or who the lawyers were).

Maryland Rule 2-601(a) requires each judgment to be set forth on a separate document. Complying with the rule, either the trial judge or the clerk checked a box for judgment in favor of the second doctor next to the statement “All relief is denied.” Left empty was another box referring to the assigned costs. The judgment form reflecting the verdict against the first doctor reflected judgment was entered in favor of plaintiff. This document also left the box regarding the assessment of costs unchecked.

Then it gets more interesting and convoluted. Plaintiff’s lawyer filed a “Motion For A New Trial, To Alter Or Amend The Judgment And To Revise The Judgment” based on the discovery failures of the second doctor. After there was no ruling, Plaintiff’s attorney filed an “exercise in caution” in a second motion identical to the first. The trial judge denied the motion but Plaintiff’s lawyers said they did not receive the order until over a month later.

What a mess. So Plaintiff’s lawyer tried to nip the appellate problem in the bud by filing a “Motion for Entry of Final Judgment” which claimed that the docket showed no ruling on Plaintiff’s first motion, and the judgment was not final until costs were addressed as requested in Plaintiff’s lawsuit.

Raise your hand if you got lost. It is a bit convoluted. The nutshell of Plaintiff’s argument is clear: Plaintiff has more time to appeal because there was no award of costs to be a final judgment.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals found that Maryland law unambiguously states that the default is that court costs are paid by the party that loses the lawsuit. So it remanded the case back to Howard County to figure out the nuances of costs. The court’s opinion makes clear that the remand is just for the ministerial issues of costs and that the Court of Special Appeals’ ruling is that the time to file an appeal against the second doctor had passed.

The court did a drive by, but really did not discuss the problem that Plaintiff’s lawyer claimed, in that there was a delay in sending Plaintiff’s counsel a copy of the order that would have started the clock on the appeal. That is scary because there have been many times when we have experienced a delay in getting orders from the court.

Ultimately, this whole appeal is probably a treadmill exercise. The abuse of discretion is going to be a tough one to get past because, obviously, the trial judge gave some or no remedy for the discovery failures that the judge thought was appropriate. But the take home message from this case is clear: be very careful about the timing of a notice to appeal.

You can find the full opinion here on Leagle.

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  • Beckley Mason

    How often does this kind of stuff actually happen? Is this the lawyer’s fault, or someone who works in his or her firm?

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