HONOLULU (Legal Newsline) - The Hawaii Supreme Court issued a ruling in a medical malpractice case which clarified the evidentiary standard required for a defendant to be granted summary judgment.

Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald wrote the Jan. 25 opinion for the Court with the four associate justices concurring.

Plaintiff Rick Ralston sued his dentist, Dr. Errol Y.W. Yim, alleging that Yim had negligently provided orthodontic care.

Yim moved for summary judgment and the circuit court ordered a continuance in order to allow Ralston time to submit an expert's affidavit establishing that Yim had failed to meet the standard of care.

Ralston's counsel submitted an unauthenticated expert report prior to the next hearing which stated that Yim did not meet the standard of care and Yim asserted that since Ralston had failed to provide an authenticated expert affidavit, as required under the rules, summary judgment should be granted.

Prior to the hearing, Ralston's counsel submitted a faxed copy of an affidavit from the expert, Dr. Harry Aronowitz, in an attempt to authenticate the affidavit. At the hearing, Yim argued that the faxed affidavit should be stricken because it was untimely and that it was inadmissible because it was a faxed copy.

The circuit court agreed with Dr. Yim, stating that it had given Ralston enough time to correct the evidentiary issues, and granted summary judgment in his favor.

Ralston appealed to the Intermediate Court of Appeals, arguing that the circuit court had erred because it had shifted the burden of proof to Ralston by requiring him to submit an expert affidavit in spite of Yim's failure to come forward with evidence that he had met the standard of care.

The Intermediate Court ruled that Yim had failed to satisfy his initial burden as the summary judgment movant.

The Court additionally ruled that Ralston was not given "adequate time" to conduct discovery, noting that "the plain language of Rule 56(c) [federal rule] mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial."

Yim then appealed to the state Supreme Court asking:

Was it grave error for the ICA to excuse [Ralston's] failure to move for a [HRCP] Rule 56(f) continuance and failure to authenticate exhibits containing expert opinions, by requiring Yim, in a summary judgment motion, to come forward with affirmative evidence establishing the standard of care and prove he did not violate said standard?

"As this court has previously articulated," Recktenwald wrote, "a summary judgment movant may satisfy his or her initial burden of production by either (1) producing admissible evidence to show there was no genuine issue of material fact, or (2) showing that the non-moving party cannot carry his or her burden of proof at trial.

"However, as the ICA pointed out, the movant generally cannot support its initial burden of production by pointing solely to the non-moving party's lack of evidence if discovery has not concluded.

"The ICA's suggestion that "adequate time" is a substantive requirement for the granting of a motion for summary judgment could cause confusion as to the rights and obligations of the parties under HRCP Rule 56(f).

"Thus, we conclude that HRCP Rule 56(f) is the proper procedure to request and obtain additional time to respond to a motion for summary judgment that is filed prior to the discovery deadline.

"Nevertheless, we conclude that the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment since Dr. Yim did not satisfy his initial burden of production. Therefore, the judgment of the ICA is affirmed."

Because the judgment of the Intermediate Court of Appeals was confirmed and the Intermediate court had ruled the circuit court erred in granting Yim summary judgment, the case will return to circuit court for proceedings consistent with the opinion.

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