Products Liability Law Daily Did Georgia’s automatic case dismissal laws deprive vehicle owner of her day in court against Ford Motor Co.?
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Monday, January 9, 2017

Did Georgia’s automatic case dismissal laws deprive vehicle owner of her day in court against Ford Motor Co.?

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

A woman whose property had been damaged when an allegedly defective Ford motor vehicle spontaneously combusted in her garage but whose products liability lawsuit in Georgia was automatically dismissed after five years elapsed without court action is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether that state’s automatic dismissal statutes deprive litigants of their constitutional due process protections (Johnson v. Ford Motor Co., cert. filed January 3, 2017).

After an allegedly defective automobile manufactured and sold by the Ford Motor Company spontaneously combusted and caused severe fire damage to the vehicle owner’s home, she brought a products liability action against Ford and some of its parts manufacturers in Georgia state court. The defendants’ first motion for summary judgment was granted by the trial court in 2004; a decision that was appealed and eventually reversed and remanded for further consideration.

While the original appeal was pending, however, the vehicle owner’s counsel suffered a debilitating stroke and another attorney took over the case in 2005. In 2007, the trial court granted partial summary judgment to one of the parts manufacturers after reconsideration in light of the appeals court’s earlier remand. Although Ford and the parts manufacturer filed a new motion for summary judgment and requested a hearing after additional discovery, no hearing was held and the trial court never ruled on that motion.

Apparently the case languished in limbo until 2012, when an entry was made on the docket indicating that the case had been administratively dismissed under Georgia’s case dismissal statutes because no written order had been entered in the case for over five years (O.C.G.A. §§9-2-60 and 9-11-41, which require automatic dismissal of a lawsuit without prejudice when no court order has been entered for five years but permit re-filing within six months). No order was entered regarding the automatic dismissal, no hearing was held, and no notice of dismissal was sent to the parties.

The vehicle owner’s counsel requested a status conference and, as part of that conference, requested that the administrative dismissal be set aside because there was no indication that a remittitur had been filed after the appeals court’s initial reversal/remand so that the trial court had no jurisdiction over the case. Alternatively, the vehicle owner argued that the dismissal should be set aside because she had not been notified of the dismissal and, as such, had not been afforded with an opportunity to re-file her case within six months of the dismissal.

In 2014, the trial court entered an order approving of the administrative dismissal and denying the vehicle owner’s request that the order be set aside or that she be given an opportunity to re-file her case. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that parties are due no notice at all from the court (even after the relevant date of automatic dismissal) because litigants are charged with constructive notice of the automatic dismissal statutes. Thereafter, the Georgia Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari as well as a petition for reconsideration of that denial.

Petitioner’s arguments. Georgia courts have interpreted the state’s dismissal statutes to allow the final termination of a party’s case without any notice to the parties beyond a presumed constructive notice of the law, the petitioner asserted, adding that the Georgia Supreme Court has interpreted those provisions as meaning that a trial court automatically loses jurisdiction over a case after five years without a trial court order, and automatically extinguishing a party’s property interest in their case.

According to the petitioner, Georgia is the only state in the nation with such a law. Post-dismissal, courts in that state do not require notice of any kind to be sent to the parties to alert them to the dismissal, which begins the running of the statute’s revival period. Without notice of any kind, the statutory revival period loses meaning and Georgia’s automatic dismissal statutes fail to comport with a minimum level of due process, the petitioner advanced.

Pre-dismissal notice or even post-dismissal notice of the fact of dismissal easily could have cured the due process violation in the case at bar, the petitioner maintained. To provide no notice at all of an actual dismissal of a case until after the six-month statutory right to revive the case deprives litigants of a valuable property interest without the constitutional protections to which they are entitled, the petitioner contended.

Question presented. Accordingly, the petition asks the High Court "[w]hether the Constitutional protections of due process are violated by Georgia’s ‘automatic dismissal’ statutes, unique in the nation, which terminate a party’s case by automatically removing jurisdiction from the trial court without pre- or post-dismissal notice to the parties, and without the participation of the trial court."

The case is Docket No. 16-853.

Attorneys: Render C. Freeman (Andersen, Tate & Carr, PC) for Mable Johnson.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

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