A Natrona County District Court judge was right to appoint a woman as the wrongful death representative of her grandmother who died at a Casper assisted living facility, but erred to hold the facility in contempt for not releasing documents relating to her death, according to a unanimous Wyoming Supreme Court opinion handed down Tuesday.
“Once the appointment is final, the district court has no active case remaining before it under [Wyoming law], and no jurisdiction to compel discovery,” Chief Justice Michael K. Davis wrote.
According to the opinion’s summary of the case, Leah Barrett was the granddaughter of Betty June Cochran who resided at Life Care Center of Casper until her death allegedly after a fall in May 2018. Barrett was represented by Casper attorneys Frank Chapman, Michael Lansing and Patrick Lewallen. Life Care Center was represented by Casper attorneys Lena Moeller and Amy Iberlin.
In August 2018, District Court Judge Kerri Johnson granted Barrett’s request to be Cochran’s wrongful death representative.
Barrett then subpoenaed Life Care and demanded documentation of incidents involving falls, personnel files and other materials related to Cochran’s care from 2013-2018.
Life Care responded that it would supply medical records but nothing else.
Barrett petitioned the district court to compel Life Care to turn over the other documentation, and Johnson ordered Life Care to do so.
After several legal proceedings, Johnson held Life Care in contempt and ordered it to pay $250 per day after Aug. 30, 2019, for each day it didn’t comply with the court’s order.
Life Care filed a petition for a writ of review and an appeal with the Wyoming Supreme Court, which consolidated the two cases.
In its opinion, the High Court agreed Johnson was right to appoint Barrett as a wrongful death representative.
But it said Johnson was wrong to hear discovery motions and to compel Life Care to turn over the other materials — the process known as discovery during a court case — because appointing Barrett as a wrongful death representative was the only thing she could do under Wyoming law.
Otherwise, Barrett would have the ability to conduct “the proverbial fishing expedition” before she took any formal legal action to sue Life Care.
Chief Justice Davis concluded that because Natrona County District Court exceeded its jurisdiction in allowing Barrett to conduct discovery before a trial, its order compelling Life Care to turn over the documents is void as is the contempt order.
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