In a lawsuit, the court sets various action deadlines throughout a case. A party seeking to change a deadline files a motion for continuance.
When a party represents himself, the court has to balance competing considerations. The court may have more patience with a pro se party that might not be familiar with the relevant legal principles. However, the court must enforce the rules equally.
Because of the challenge of abiding by complex rules that may be unfamiliar, unfortunately, cases often don’t end well for pro se parties. I will discuss the recent case of Dagher v. Moreno and then provide tips to the pro se party. Although the case involved a motion for continuance in a car accident claim, the same principles apply to medical malpractice cases. The Appellate Court of Maryland issued an unreported opinion in the case on December 1, 2023.
Court Opinion: Motion for Continuance
In Dagher, the plaintiff became pro se after the court granted the plaintiff lawyer’s motion to withdraw. As a side note, a lawyer seeking to withdraw often means a severe problem with the case or a serious situation between the lawyer and the client.
In granting the motion, the court advised the plaintiff to get another lawyer. The court stated that lack of counsel would not be grounds for a postponement. At that time, there was over a month until the trial date. (Op. at 1).
Five days before the trial, the plaintiff filed a motion to postpone the trial because he did not have another lawyer yet. The court denied the motion. On the day of the trial, the plaintiff was in the hospital. The court believed the plaintiff was faking an illness. The defense moved in court to dismiss, and the court granted it. Two days later, the plaintiff filed a motion for continuance and attached the hospital discharge papers. The trial court denied it, stating that the filing had not changed its belief. (Id.)
The appellate court noted that whether to grant a motion for continuance is at the trial court’s sound discretion. An abuse of discretion exists when no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial court or when the court acts without reference to any guiding rules or principles. (Id. at 1-2).
The appellate court found that the trial court had exercised its discretion in considering the motion. The court had considered the hospitalization against the backdrop of the previously denied motion for continuance on the ground of lack of counsel – a ground that the trial court had specifically said would not warrant a continuance. Then, the court weighed the discharge instructions, which said the plaintiff was admitted at an unspecified time on the day of trial for unspecified chest pain and discharged an unspecified time the next day before concluding the plaintiff had faked an illness to avoid appearing in court. The appellate court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion. (Id. at 2).
In Dagher, the plaintiff had over one month to get replacement counsel and waited until five days before trial to file a motion for continuance. We don’t know the details of the plaintiff’s attempts to get a lawyer or whether any lawyer would take the case. However, there are a few things that a plaintiff in that position can do to have the best chance for success.
Start searching for a lawyer immediately. It should take little time. The internet is an excellent source for finding a lawyer – most lawyers have websites. Do a search tailored to the specialty you need and your geographic location, e.g., Towson medical malpractice lawyer.
Most good lawyers are quick to respond to potential new clients. Be sure to tell the lawyer about the court’s deadline. Insist the lawyer enter an appearance ASAP so that you can complete your task.
If any circumstance results in you being unable to find a lawyer, let the court know as soon as possible. Document your efforts. Giving the court detailed information early in the process will increase your chances of obtaining more time from the court.
A pro se plaintiff has to be very careful in dealing with the court. Following the above suggestions should help you get a lawyer who can take over the management of the case. If not, you will position yourself for the court to look favorably on a motion for continuance.
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