Price v. Wei Zhang, 119053

CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma
Writing for the CourtKAUGER, J.
Citation2022 OK 95
PartiesCHARLIE C. PRICE, Individually, and as Next of Kin of MARILYN L. PRICE, Deceased, Appellant/Plaintiff, v. WEI ZHANG, M.D., FREDERICK A. DORROH, M.D., ARDMORE SURGICAL ASSOCIATES, INC., MERCY CLINIC OKLAHOMA COMMUNITIES, INC., MERCY HOSPITAL-ARDMORE, INC., and John Doe/One or More, Appellees/Defendants.
Docket Number119053
Decision Date22 November 2022

2022 OK 95

CHARLIE C. PRICE, Individually, and as Next of Kin of MARILYN L. PRICE, Deceased, Appellant/Plaintiff,
v.

WEI ZHANG, M.D., FREDERICK A. DORROH, M.D., ARDMORE SURGICAL ASSOCIATES, INC., MERCY CLINIC OKLAHOMA COMMUNITIES, INC., MERCY HOSPITAL-ARDMORE, INC., and John Doe/One or More, Appellees/Defendants.

No. 119053

Supreme Court of Oklahoma

November 22, 2022


UNPUBLISHED OPINION

ON CERTIORARI FROM THE COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS, DIVISION I Honorable Thomas K. Baldwin, Trial Judge

J. Wes Billingsley, Ada, Oklahoma, for Appellant/Plaintiff.

Michael J. Heron, Chris L. Fox, Edmond, Oklahoma, for Appellees/Defendants, Wei Zhang, and Mercy Hospital Ardmore, Inc.

R. Gene Stanley, Stephen M. Rasbold, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Appellees/Defendants, Frederick A. Dorroh, and Mercy Clinic Oklahoma Communities, Inc.

KAUGER, J.

¶0 Four years after the appellant/plaintiff, Charlie Price (Price) filed a medical negligence/wrongful death action because his wife died from a stroke following surgery, the trial court dismissed the case for failure to prosecute. Price filed a motion for new trial arguing that he was denied due process because he was not given adequate notice of the hearing which resulted in the trial court's dismissal of his lawsuit. The trial court denied the motion for new trial, and the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the trial court. We hold that because the plaintiff was not afforded adequate notice of the hearing in which the trial court dismissed the cause, due process requires that the dismissal be vacated.

¶1 We granted certiorari to address the balance between a trial court's attempt to dispose of a stagnant case and a litigant's right to due process. [1] We agree that dilatory behavior by a litigant or litigants may require a trial court to control the docket and facilitate the orderly flow of business. However, due process, even though a flexible concept, requires certain procedural protections which were not afforded in this cause. [2] We hold that because the plaintiff was not afforded adequate notice of the hearing in which the trial court dismissed the cause, due process requires that the dismissal be vacated.

FACTS

¶2 At the outset we note that the trial court docket in this cause contains few entries, and few items are included in the record on appeal. Nevertheless, we can discern that Marilyn Price died from a massive stroke in April of 2014, nearly three weeks after a surgery to repair a small-bowel obstruction. Her husband, the appellant/plaintiff, Charlie Price (Price) filed a lawsuit on April 1, 2016, in the District Court of Carter Count, alleging that her death was the result of medical negligence/wrongful death. He sued the appellees/defendants, doctors Wei Zhang, and Frederick Dorroh, Ardmore Surgical Associates, Mercy Clinic, Mercy Hospital Ardmore, and anyone else involved in her care (collectively, doctors).

¶3 On February 27, 2019, the doctors filed a joint motion to dismiss for failure to prosecute. They argued that the plaintiff had been deposed over a year before, on February 20, 2018, which was the last activity in the case. Price filed a Response to the Motion to Dismiss on March 15, 2019. His attorney informed the trial court that during the pendency of the action, the plaintiff had suffered several substantial medical issues which had impacted his ability to participate in the litigation. Also on March 15, 2019, Price stated that he was ready and requested that the matter be set on the jury trial docket.

¶4 On May 14, 2019, the trial court filed a "NOTICE" which set the matter for "Annual Disposition Docket on 6-2-19 at 10:00." The notice indicates that it was mailed to the plaintiff's attorney. The cause was apparently not dismissed, because the next docket entries consisted of an entry of appearance filed on June 21, 2019, and a scheduling order filed on June 24, 2019, which set a pretrial conference for October 7, 2019, at 1:30 p.m. with notation that the trial date would be set on the November docket.

¶5 On October 7, 2019, both parties jointly filed a motion to extend the discovery deadline and reset the trial date. The reason? Plaintiff's counsel underwent a total hip replacement in June of 2019, and he had unforeseen complications with the procedure which inhibited his ability to work for several weeks.

¶6 The joint motion filed on October 7, 2019, was the last docket entry until nine months later, on July 22, 2020, when the trial court filed an order of dismissal without prejudice. It states that the pretrial conference was scheduled for July 13, 2020, at 1:30 p.m., but that the plaintiff's counsel did not appear. Instead, another attorney attended the pretrial conference on behalf of plaintiff's counsel, but the court limited the substitute counsel's participation in the proceeding.

¶7 The trial court dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice because there was "no evidence that plaintiff's counsel has prosecuted the case in an effort to move the case forward since the parties appeared before the Court in October 2019." On August 5, 2020, the plaintiff filed a Motion for New Trial. In it, plaintiff's counsel explains that:

1. After the lawsuit was initially filed, discovery was on-going at the request of the defendants
2. On March 15, 2019, the plaintiff notified the Court he was ready to proceed and set a trial date, but the trial court never held a hearing on the motion
3. Plaintiff was provided notice of the Annual Disposition Docket hearing on June 21, 2019, and the plaintiff appeared through a substitute counsel due to the plaintiff's lawyer having undergone hip replacement surgery four days prior to the hearing;
4. The parties jointly filed a motion to extend discovery;
5. The plaintiff's counsel appeared on October 7, 2019, for a pretrial conference, but no amended scheduling order, additional pleadings, or court minutes were filed following the October 7, 2019, pretrial conference;
6. On March 16, 2020, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued an order in response to the COVID outbreak which ordered district courts to suspend jury trials and reschedule other hearings, etc., for thirty days.
7. On March 27, 2020, the Oklahoma Supreme Court entered another order extending the suspension until May 15, 2020;
8. On April 29, 2020, the Oklahoma Supreme Court entered a third order again amending scheduling until after July 31, 2020, with a few exceptions;
9. On July 10, 2020, the plaintiff's counsel received an email
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