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He Finally Finds Mercy of the Court

Cancer-stricken O.C. lawyer wins on appeal after his request for a continuance had been denied.

August 01, 2004|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Even in the gutsy, go-for-the-jugular legal world, Robert Ragsdale has found a voice of compassion.

An appellate court ruled that the Rancho Santa Margarita attorney should have been treated with more sympathy in 2002 by an Orange County Superior Court judge when the lawyer went into the hospital to have his cancerous bladder removed.

The judge denied the attorney's request to have his case continued while he recovered, then dismissed the matter altogether.

In its July 13 ruling, the state 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana overruled the judge and ordered the case back to court. "There are times when respect for the human condition dictates a compassionate response to a request for a continuation," the court wrote.

"This is one of those times."

Ragsdale, 54, whose cancer has now attacked his spine, leaving him partially paralyzed, said he was heartened by the ruling but would have to hand the case off to another attorney.

The case deals with the death of Garrett Logan Lerma, 19, an art student who was killed in a Dec. 26, 2000, car accident.

Lerma's family hired Ragsdale to file a wrongful-death suit against the county and Rancho Santa Margarita, saying street conditions were unsafe because of overgrown shrubbery that blocked the view of motorists.

The case made it to court at a time when Ragsdale had been scheduled for surgery. He had his bladder removed Nov. 26, 2002, the same day he was served with motions from the city and county to dismiss the charges.

When he was discharged Dec. 6, Ragsdale learned his client's lawsuit would be lost unless he prepared a legal brief within two days.

He wrote to Superior Court Judge Randell L. Wilkinson, outlining his medical battle and dates of his hospitalization, including the advice of doctors that he not return to work for six to eight weeks.

Wilkinson denied the request for continuance and granted requests by Rancho Santa Margarita and Orange County to dismiss the lawsuit.

The state appellate court, saying Ragsdale's plea for a continuance was "gut wrenching," reversed Wilkinson's ruling and sent the case back to Superior Court, where Lerma's parents will have the right to argue that their case should go to trial.

Though they were sympathetic to Ragsdale's illness, lawyers for the city and county argued that he had ample time and should have been able to gather the evidence, making a continuance unnecessary.

But when someone is ill, "lifting a file ... walking 10 feet" and searching for documents can be "beyond human ability," Justice Eileen Moore wrote in the appellate court opinion. She said the fact that the incapacitated attorney filed anything "was nothing short of heroic."

Debra E. Allen, an attorney who represented the county, said Ragsdale knew in early 2002 that he was to undergo surgery in November. "I don't want to sound unsympathetic, but Mr. Ragsdale had been ill for a very long time," she said.

Ragsdale said he holds no animosity toward Wilkinson.

He said he still has a few clients and is trying to find an attorney to represent the Lermas.

"I'm just glad to wake up every day," he said.

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