In a recent Georgia Court of Appeal decision, Baker v. Atlantic States Insurance Company, --- S.E.2d ----, 2020 WL 1149933 (Ga. Ct. App. 2020) the Court upheld the ruling of a trial court permitting attorney’s fees as a sanction for a plaintiff’s willful violation of discovery. The plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her case after a hearing was held related to the discovery violation, but before the trial court entered its order. At the hearing, the trial court announced that it was awarding attorney’s fees and costs to the defendant. However, before the trial court entered its order, the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her case. The plaintiff contended that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to sanction her for a failure to comply with discovery.
Baker brought an action against her automobile insurer alleging she sustained an injury in a collision with an uninsured driver. Baker’s treating physician indicated surgery was needed. The insurer sought an independent medical examination (“IME”) of Baker for a second opinion regarding the necessity of the surgery. The insurer scheduled an IME with Baker on three occasions, but Baker cancelled each time shortly before the scheduled date. The insurer filed a motion to compel Baker to attend an IME. After a hearing, the court ordered Baker to attend an IME within the next 40 days. The parties agreed upon a date, but Baker went ahead with the surgery and cancelled the IME. The insurer moved for spoliation, discovery misconduct, and sanctions. At the hearing on the motion for sanctions, the court announced it was granting attorney’s fees and costs, but declined to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint. The court also instructed the parties to return to set another date for an IME. After the hearing, Baker voluntarily dismissed her complaint. The court issued its order, nunc pro tunc to the date of the hearing. Baker appealed the order arguing that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.
In finding the trial court had jurisdiction, the Georgia Court of Appeals indicated that “the oral announcement of a dispositive ruling in open court, for example, ends the time for filing a unilateral voluntary dismissal.” While the Court of Appeals noted that “the exception to the rule of voluntary dismissal has not previously been applied to a ruling on a motion for sanctions under OCGA § 9-11-37 (b) (2), we find the exception applicable [under the circumstances].” The Court of Appeals noted that the trial court would not have retained jurisdiction had it not made an oral ruling at the hearing. However, in this matter, in the transcript of the hearing the trial court unequivocally announced its ruling to award attorney’s fees and costs to the insurer. Therefore, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees and costs.