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Soltys v. Costello

March 25, 2008

CHRISTINA SOLTYS AND DANUTA PAUCH, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
YVONNE COSTELLO, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. No. 04 C 448-Andrew P. Rodovich, Magistrate Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kanne, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED SEPTEMBER 21, 2007

Before EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge, and KANNE and ROVNER, Circuit Judges.

Christina Soltys and Danuta Pauch were seriously injured in a car accident caused by Yvonne Costello, who, at the time, was driving under the influence of alcohol. Soltys and Pauch sued Costello, who admitted liability; trial was limited to the amount of damages owed to Soltys and Pauch. The district court denied Soltys and Pauch's eleventh-hour motion to amend their complaint to add a count for punitive damages. After the jury returned its verdict, the district court denied Soltys and Pauch's motion for a new trial. The district court did not abuse its discretion on either of these issues, so we affirm.

I. HISTORY

The facts of the accident underlying this case are simple enough: in the early-morning hours of February 27, 2004, Soltys and Pauch were traveling north on U.S. Highway 41 in Hammond, Indiana, when their vehicle was struck by an oncoming vehicle driven by Costello. Costello, who had been driving south on the highway, crossed the center line and caused a head-on collision. Both Pauch and Soltys suffered serious injuries. In a later criminal proceeding arising out of the incident, Costello pled guilty to driving under the influence.

The facts of the litigation surrounding the accident, on the other hand, are muddled and chock-full of attorney blunders. Soltys and Pauch hired attorney Benjamin Nwoye, who filed a complaint in federal court against Costello in June 2004, on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. The complaint included negligence counts, and averred that Costello was legally intoxicated at the time of the accident. Unfortunately for Soltys and Pauch, Nwoye made numerous mistakes after the pleading stage of the litigation, some of which led to the imposition of sanctions against Soltys and Pauch. But Nwoye was not the only attorney committing errors in the case. Counsel for Costello committed a grand oversight by failing to file an answer until nearly two years after the suit commenced.

Part of the confusion for the attorneys on both sides stemmed from an early (albeit routine) change of venue- requested by Costello-from the Northern District of Illinois to the Northern District of Indiana. According to Nwoye, when the case was transferred he was not yet admitted to practice in Indiana, and he could not access the pertinent documents on the court's electronic system. Nwoye assumed that Costello had filed an answer, and he proceeded with his representation of Soltys and Pauch even though he had no knowledge of the defendant's position. As for Costello's attorney, he inherited the case from an Illinois law firm upon transfer; he, too, thought the complaint had been answered and he proceeded with discovery.

Between the scheduling conference on February 2, 2005, and December 12, 2005 (the originally-scheduled trial date), Nwoye defaulted in responding to discovery requests. He was ordered to disclose Soltys's and Pauch's medical reports, expert witnesses, and expert reports, but failed to do so. This, in turn, affected Costello's discovery obligations; Costello filed a motion seeking an extension of time to disclose her expert witnesses because she was still waiting on the plaintiffs' disclosure of the same. In early July, the district court ordered Soltys and Pauch to satisfy their discovery obligations within the next two-and-a-half weeks. But the plaintiffs and Nwoye did nothing.

Costello forced Nwoye's hand in October by filing a motion to dismiss on the ground that he still had not complied with discovery orders. Shortly thereafter, Costello filed a motion for sanctions, again because of Nwoye's obstinance with respect to discovery. Consistent with previous behavior, Nwoye did not respond to either of these motions. The district court gave Nwoye additional time to respond-until the end of November. But it was not until January 2006 that Nwoye finally responded to the pending motions. In that response, Nwoye explained that a death in his family had kept him from complying with the discovery schedule. However, Nwoye failed to explain the exact dates he was away from work, why he did not ask for an extension, or why he delayed so long in responding to the motions.

The district court did not dismiss the case, but it did impose sanctions on Soltys and Pauch on January 12, 2006, for their refusal (that is,their attorney's refusal) to respond to discovery requests. As its sanction, the district court excluded "all plaintiffs' experts, expert reports, and personal medical records from the evidence pursuant to [Fed. R. Civ. P.] 37(b)(2) except the 43 pages [already] produced in discovery." Trial was set for May 30, 2006.

In the spring of 2006-after discovery and shortly before trial-Nwoye reviewed the court record and saw that there was no answer. He contacted Costello's attorney and their exchange revealed to both parties that Costello had never filed an answer. On March 24, 2006, Nwoye filed a motion for default judgment, based on the lack of an answer. That same day, Costello filed her answer, in which she admitted liability for the accident. The district court denied Nwoye's motion for default judgment, characterizing Costello's failure to timely file an answer as a "technical deficiency."

About a month before trial, Costello filed a motion in limine, seeking to exclude at trial any evidence of her conviction for driving under the influence. Her position was that Soltys and Pauch's complaint only sought compensatory damages, and as such, evidence of her conviction would be prejudicial and irrelevant. Once again, Nwoye did not file a response to Costello's motion.

After the final pretrial conference, Nwoye filed a motion to amend Soltys and Pauch's complaint to add a claim for punitive damages. In this motion, Nwoye opposed Costello's motion in limine. He argued that Costello's intoxication was relevant to the new claim for punitive damages, so it should not be excluded at trial. The district court denied Nwoye's motion to amend, without explanation, but it later explained the denial in a post-trial opinion and order. The court decided that Nwoye had unduly ...


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