This case is presents a classic clash of process values v. the merits of a dispute.
The lawyers for the people bringing the lawsuit blow a deadline for responding to a motion for summary judgment. The essence of the motion is that there was no expert report filed to show that malpractice was committed. The lawyers who blew the deadline brought a motion to reconsider and in the last pleading filed in connection with that motion before the judge ruled, submitted the missing expert report which probably would have brought the case to a trial on the merits had it be timely filed.
While not handled optimally (the summary judgment response deadline should have been calendared, and an extension of time sought if a response wasn't ready at that point), it is quite possible that the underlying problem was that it was taking longer than hoped to find a doctor willing to offer an expert opinion, even though one was ultimately found. This difficulty moreover, may have flowed from needing to get the case filed before all the ducks were lined up in a row to meet a statute of limitations.
At any rate, the defendant doctor wins on a technicality, and we will never have anyone decide the merits of a case despite the fact that both side ultimately got expert reports to support their positions.
I don't think anyone doubts that, at some point, enough is enough, and that the demands of a smoothly functioning justice system calls for some civil litigations to be resolved based upon procedural grounds rather than substantive ones (in criminal cases and particularly in death penalty cases where there is a right to competent counsel because the defendant is indigent, this observation is far less obvious). Indeed, the default judgment is overwhelmingly the most common way for civil lawsuits to be resolved, and while some of those default judgment undoubtedly are due to bureaucratic ineptitude by defendants who had meritorious defenses, there is also little doubt that a large majority of default judgments involve cases where the claim made is justified or close to justified.
There is also, however, a doctrine in civil procedure that disfavors resolving cases on procedural grounds when there is a bona fide claim to reach another result on the merits.
The case decided yesterday resolved that question based upon precedents that give trial judges wide latitude when a particular kind of procedural mistake is made by a party in a civil case. But, this formalistic resolution, while practical and probably a correct ruling in light of past precedents, is also unsatisfying. What should illuminate the decision?
Why should the response in this case, where there are two active litigation teams, be to award the defense their attorneys fees incurred as a result of the delay and the need to bring a summary judgment motion, and a continuance of the trial date, if desired, rather than a dismissal? Is a procedural default mid-case that is demonstrably remediable really a sound basis for denying relief on the merits to a party?
Also, the equities in this case would be very different if a sworn expert report hadn't been filed in the trial court before a final decision was made by the trial judge who felt compelled by precedent to ignore it. Does a rule that allows a trial judge to ignore a last minute save of this kind really make sense? It is one thing to be a day late and a dollar short. It is another to deliver all the goods a day late.