Fraud On The Court Dismissal Of Lawsuit And Striking Of Defenses
Litigants beware! Whether you are suing for damages as a plaintiff, or defending a lawsuit as a defendant, you better make sure you are telling the truth lest your case be dismissed, or your defenses stricken, based on “fraud on the court.” While telling the truth is an obvious proposition and central to the integrity of our system of justice, you’d be surprised at the number of decisions in the law reporters where one of the parties to a lawsuit has attempted to pull a fast one on the justice system but gets caught. Although most of the reported decisions involve personal injury claims where the plaintiff intentionally failed to disclose previous injuries to the same body part (e.g., neck or back injuries) that he or she is claimed were caused by the defendant’s negligence, parties to business disputes and other civil litigation matters are sometimes no less immune to perjury in an attempt to gain an advantage in a case. Trial courts have the inherent authority to dismiss an action as a sanction when it learns that a plaintiff has perpetrated a fraud on the court. See e.g., Morgan v. Campbell, 816 So.2d 251, 253 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002). This authority exists because “no litigant has a right to trifle with the courts.” Id. The standard for trial court judges to follow when deciding whether fraud on the court has occurred was set out in the case of Cox v. Burke, 706 So. 2d 43 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998):‘The requisite fraud on the court occurs where ‘it can be demonstrated, clearly and convincingly, that a party has sentiently set in motion some unconscionable scheme calculated to interfere with the judicial system’s ability impartially to adjudicate a matter by improperly influencing the trier of fact or unfairly hampering the presentation of the opposing party’s claim or defense .’
Cox at 46 citing to Aoude v. Mobil Oil Corp., 892 F.2d 1115, 1118 (1st Cir.1989). Because “dismissal sounds the ‘death knell of the lawsuit,’ courts must reserve such strong medicine for instances where the defaulting party’s misconduct is correspondingly egregious.” Id. citing to Aoude at 1118.
As stated in Cox, the evidence of fraud on the court must be “clear and convincing.” Thus, while intentional lying and deliberate attempts to conceal negative facts that are central to the issues in the case will warrant dismissal based on fraud on the court, poor recollection or mere discrepancies in testimony will not. Such matters are best left to impeachment during cross-examination at trial rather than the extreme sanction of dismissal of the lawsuit. See e.g., Gehrmann v. City of Orlando, 962 So.2d 1059, 1062 (Fla. 5th DCA 2007).
As mentioned above, when a defendant attempts to perpetrate a fraud on the court, judges have the remedy of striking the defendant’s answer and defenses. See e.g., Tramel v. Bass, 672 So.2d 78 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996). When this occurs the plaintiff is most certain to obtain a judgment in its favor against the defendant.