Trial Court Has Discretion to Dismiss Action During Trial Due to Party’s Refusal to Follow Instructions

In Ex parte Folmar Kenner, LLC [Ms. 1070824] (Ala. Sept. 18, 2009), the Alabama Supreme Court held that it was within the trial court’s discretion to dismiss a parties counterclaims, with prejudice, during trial when a party did not follow the court’s instructions to just answer the questions asked and to not elaborate on her answers.

During Capaci’s testimony at trial, she repeatedly volunteered information beyond the scope of the questions which were asked by opposing counsel.  Counsel objected, and Capaci was repeatedly told that her lawyer would have a chance to ask questions, and that she should limit her answers to the questions were asked.  Capaci stated that she was responding that way because she was nervous.

After several warnings, the trial court threatened to dismiss Capaci’s claims if she did not follow the court’s instructions and only answer the questions which were asked. After more warnings, the trial court finally dismissed her claims with prejudice pursuant to Ala. R. Civ. P. 41(b), which allows a trial court to dismiss a claim with prejudice when a plaintiff fails to comply with "orders of the court."

The Court of Civil Appeals reversed, holding that the dismissal was an abuse of discretion.  But the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Civil Appeals and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal.

The Supreme Court stated that the trial court’s dismissal was apparently based on a finding of contempt due to her failure to follow repeated orders to limit her answers to the questions asked.  The Supreme Court held that a trial court’s conclusion that the actions rose to contempt was presumed to be correct, and the decision to dismiss the case is reviewed for abuse of discretion.  In reversing the trial court, the Court of Civil Appeals improperly substituted its judgment for that of the trial court.

The Supreme Court concluded that the record supported the conclusion that Capaci had failed to follow orders.  And, because the trial court is in a better position to determine whether violating the order was willful or contumacious, that finding would not be disturbed unless there was an abuse of discretion.  Here, the record supported the trial court’s decision to dismiss the claims with prejudice.