The State of Minnesota Court of Appeals (“Minnesota Appellate Court”), in its unpublished opinion dated April 13, 2020, held, “we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the Ruizes’ motion for continuance. While the result of denying the Ruizes’ motion for continuance is certainly harsh, the district court must consider more than just prejudice to the plaintiff. Our function is to review the record to see whether it supports the district court’s exercise of discretion, not to retry the case.”
The Underlying Facts
Mario A. Ruiz (“Ruiz”) underwent heart-valve-replacement surgery on November 28, 2006. Ruiz and his wife alleged that a cardiovascular surgeon employed by Regions Hospital breached the standard of care for heart-valve-replacement surgery by implanting too small of a valve. Ruiz alleged that, as a result, he suffered iatrogenic aortic stenosis, cardiac dysfunction, shortness of breath, decreased energy, and deconditioning, resulting in his permanent disability that left him unable to work.
In October 2009, the Ruizes retained attorney Michael W. Unger (“Unger”) to represent them in a medical malpractice suit against the operating surgeon. On April 29, 2011, Unger withdrew from representation of the Ruizes because he had not yet initiated a malpractice suit against the operating surgeon and he anticipated a legal-malpractice action, which would create a conflict of interest with the Ruizes. The date that the statute of limitations expired is unclear, but at the time, Unger believed it had passed. The Ruizes never commenced a malpractice claim against the operating surgeon.
The Ruizes filed a legal malpractice lawsuit against Unger, arguing that the legal standard of care required him to file the Minnesota medical malpractice lawsuit before the medical malpractice statute of limitations expired. The Ruizes’ new counsel retained three expert witnesses to establish a prima facie case for the underlying medical malpractice claim: two cardiovascular surgeons and one cardiologist. Unger moved in limine to exclude the cardiologist from testifying on the standard of care, which the Ruizes opposed by contending that he qualified as an expert. Unger’s motion in limine was not ruled upon because the Ruizes stated that the cardiologist would not testify on the standard of care.
A month before trial, the Ruizes sought a continuance, citing the unavailability of their two cardiovascular surgeons to testify at trial. The Ruizes argued that denying a continuance would be fatal to their case, now taking the position that their only available expert witness, the cardiologist, was not qualified to testify on the standard of care of implanting a heart valve of a specific size because he had never performed the surgical procedure. When the district court again refused to grant a continuance and instead proceeded to trial, the Ruizes rested their case and Unger moved for a judgment as a matter of law under Minn. R. Civ. P. 41.02(b), which the district court accepted, dismissing the Ruizes’ case. The Ruizes filed an appeal, arguing that the district court abused its discretion by denying their motion for continuance of trial.
Minnesota Appellate Court Opinion
Motion For Continuance
The Minnesota Appellate Court explained that in deciding whether to grant a motion for continuance, the district court must consider and balance (1) the degree of prejudice to the moving party; (2) prejudice to the nonmoving party; (3) the impact of a modification at that stage of the litigation; and (4) the degree of willfulness, bad faith, or inexcusable neglect by the nonmoving party.
The Ruizes had argued in the district court against Unger’s motion in limine to exclude the cardiologist’s testimony, asserting that “voir dire will reveal that [he] has ample practical experience to qualify as an expert.” The district court invited the Ruizes to proceed with the cardiologist at trial so it could assess the foundation of his opinions at voir dire, but the Ruizes declined to offer the cardiologist’s testimony, preventing the district court from assessing his qualifications. The Minnesota Appellate Court stated, “the Ruizes prevented the district court from determining [the cardiologist’s] qualifications and prevented a possibly qualified expert from testifying. Because the district court did not have the opportunity to assess [the cardiologist’s] expert qualifications, we have no admissibility determination to review … Because the Ruizes have not established their inability to make a prima facie case with [the cardiologist], we need not opine on whether the lack of an expert witness, which may fatally prejudice a case, requires granting a continuance.”
The Minnesota Appellate Court further stated, “Even if the Ruizes did not willfully or in bad faith cause their experts’ unavailability, this factor also includes inexcusable neglect … The Ruizes never asserted that they had communicated with [one of their cardiovascular surgeon experts] before learning at the last minute that he would not testify. The district court did not clearly err by finding that the Ruizes could have avoided this outcome. Moreover, as the district court suggested, the Ruizes could have subpoenaed [the other cardiovascular surgeon expert’s] testimony given that he continued 25% of his surgery practice … The record supports the district court’s inference that the Ruizes’ predicament of lacking two expert witnesses was not “unforeseen and unforeseeable.””
Source Ruiz v. Unger, A19-1013.
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