Dismissal due to Fraud on the Court Post-Jury Verdict — Not Soooooo Fast
Oftentimes, people use the term “fraud on the court” without truly recognizing the difficulties in getting a case dismissed–the harshest of sanctions–especially in a circumstance where the jury already rendered a verdict. Upon learning of the facts supporting “fraud on the court,” the appropriate motions should be filed during the course of the case because there are a number of remedies that can be employed short of dismissing a case with prejudice.
While in appellate court will review a dismissal due to fraud on the court under an abuse of discretion standard of review, this does not mean that a trial court’s discretion can never be abused in dismissing a case based on this reasoning. The case of Salazar v. Gomez, 46 Fla.L.Weekly D387a (Fla. 3d DCA 2021), discussed below, is such a case where the trial court dismissed a case post-jury verdict due to fraud on the court and the appellate court reversed and reinstated the jury’s verdict. This is because the defendant had options upon learning of the “fraud,” and thought the element of surprise at trial with impeachment and cross-examination would be its best strategic course. That decision may have well been the right decision and resulted in a lower verdict to the defendant, but the defendant could not have its cake and eat it too. It could not use this at trial seeing whether it strategically worked, and if it did not to its satisfaction, use that same information to get the case dismissed.
In Salazar, a plaintiff was involved in a car accident and sustained neck injuries. During his deposition, he disclosed he was previously involved in a car accident but did not sustain injuries or treatment. He testified he had injured himself competing for CrossFit and received physical therapy but did not go to an orthopedic surgeon. Shortly before trial, the defendant received medical records that contradicted the plaintiff’s testimony. The records demonstrated the plaintiff had previously seen an orthopedic surgeon for neck pain.
Upon receiving this contradictory information, the defendant did not move to continue the trial date, conduct more discovery, request a new deposition of the plaintiff, or file any pretrial motion. All of these remedies could have been available. Instead, the defendant elected to use these medical records for purposes of cross-examination at the trial. The jury still rendered a verdict against the defendant. The defendant then filed a motion to dismiss the case based on fraud on the court due to the misrepresentative deposition testimony. The trial court ultimately granted this motion.
Not so fast…the appellate court reversed and reinstated the jury’s verdict.
The dismissal of a case based on a party perpetrating a fraud on the court is a rare judicial remedy and a difficult burden to establish. As the appellate court explained:
In order for alleged fraudulent conduct to warrant dismissal, the moving party must establish
clearly and convincingly, that a party has sentiently set in motion some unconscionable scheme calculated to interfere with the judicial system’s ability impartially to adjudicate a matter by improperly influencing the trier of fact or unfairly hampering the presentation of the opposing party’s claim or defense. When reviewing a case for fraud, the court should consider the proper mix of factors and carefully balance a policy favoring adjudication on the merits with competing policies to maintain the integrity of the judicial system.
Salazar, supra, quoting Saurez v. Benihana Nat’l of Fla. Corp., 88 So.3d 349, 352-53 (Fla. 2d DCA 2012).
Here, while there were inconsistencies in the deposition testimony, there was NOTHING in the record that demonstrated “clearly and convincingly that [the plaintiff] engaged in a scheme designed to prevent the trier of fact from impartially adjudicating this matter through lies, misrepresentations and otherwise hiding the trust.” Salazar, supra.
Furthermore, the defendant learned of this inconsistent testimony prior to trial and strategically elected not to file any pre-trial motion. Rather, the defendant elected to use this at trial for cross-examination, which may have been a very good decision, but in hindsight turned out not to work the way the defendant hoped it would. The defendant also did not move during the trial for any continuance or for a new trial. Salazar, supra (“In this instance, where the court heard no new evidence other than what was known prior to trial and presented to the jury, where the moving party sought no relief prior to or during trial and where the alleged inconsistencies were subject to impeachment, cross-examination and jury deliberation, we are constrained to conclude the trial court abused its discretion in overturning the verdict and dismissing the case.”).
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