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Montana: Hospitalized Prisoner Entitled to Continuance in Divorce Case

The Montana Supreme Court held on March 5, 2013 that refusing to grant a hospitalized prisoner’s motion for continuance of a divorce trial was an abuse of discretion.

David and Lori Eslick were married on August 15, 2005. In December 2010, David began serving a sentence in the Montana State Prison (MSP), and Lori filed for divorce.

David was unrepresented and appeared telephonically at all court hearings. A June 12, 2012 pretrial conference and June 25, 2012 trial were scheduled. David failed to appear at the pretrial conference, which was rescheduled for June 19, 2012.

David’s failure to appear or communicate with opposing counsel and the court was due to an unexpected medical emergency. On May 5, 2012, he was hospitalized for amputation of septic toes and part of his foot as a result of diabetes. Due to complications he remained hospitalized until June 11, 2012, then was confined in the MSP infirmary for the following week.

David did not receive his mail and could not attend court proceedings during this time, or schedule phone calls with the trial court. On June 18, 2012 he mailed a motion to the court seeking a 60-day continuance.

When David did not appear at the June 19, 2012 pretrial hearing, the court entered a default judgment against him on June 26, 2012, dissolving the marriage, despite having received his motion requesting a continuance.

The Montana Supreme Court reversed, concluding that “David has demonstrated good cause for granting his motion for a continuance. David’s unexpected medical emergency and the conditions of his incarceration were circumstances beyond his control that prevented his appearance at the final pretrial conference.”

The Court also concluded that David had suffered prejudice, as the trial court had “entered its findings of fact, conclusions of law, and default decree of dissolution without the benefit of David’s arguments.” The case was therefore reversed and remanded for a new pretrial conference and trial. See: In re Marriage of Eslick, 2013 MT 53, 304 P.3d 372 (Mont. 2013).

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