The civil justice system is often complex and frequently drawn-out. The lengthy nature of many cases–including medical malpractice suits–is certainly evident in situations where agreements are not reached beforehand. Cases that go to trial last quite some time, and the matter may not be settled even after a verdict. That is because any party can appeal the resolution to a higher court. It is not easy to get the court to act in any way contrary to the lower court, but it is possible.
For example, My Central Jersey reported last week on an appellate court that reversed a lower court decision in a medical malpractice case. It is a testament to the drawn-out nature of these cases, and the intricate evidentiary rules that often swing cases one way or another.
The Wrongful Death Suit
This particular case involved the death of a patient in mid-November of 2006. The 49-year old patient was scheduled to go into surgery, but the surgery never took place. That is because the woman suffered cardiac arrest shortly after being given anesthesia to start the operation. The woman was thrown into a vegetative state for over two years before passing away.
Eventually the family filed a wrongful death lawsuit, naming a surgeon, six nurses, and the hospital.
Preparing For Trial
The complications with the case began right away, during the “discovery” part of the case. Discovery is the time, before trial, where both sides collect information that may be used as evidence in the subsequent trial or pre-trial legal arguments. The main problem was that medical records and a “code sheet” related to the care that the woman received was lost. Missing, incomplete, or inaccurate medical information is a serious problem in many of these cases. When problems arise, as in this case, the lack of proper record-keeping is a significant problem in subsequent legal matters.
Yet, notwithstanding the missing records, a medical expert in the case created a report which indicated that it was “probable” that the cardiac arrest was due to substandard care. An opposing expert witness attempted to rebut the opinion.
Eventually the defendants sought a summary judgement ruling to get rid of the case. A summary judgment is a decision by a judge that there was insufficient factual disagreement on issues that matter so that judgment can be rendered one way or another as a matter of law. In other words, a summary judgment is appropriate when there is “no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
The trial judge in this case denied that summary judgment for most of the claims, because he thought that there was genuine disagreement that needed to be decided at trial. However, the defendants appealed that decision. Last week a three judge panel reversed the lower court decision and said that the motions for summary judgement should be granted. The appeals court noted that even though the plaintiff’s expert witness was not able to “explain the mechanisms that causes..the cardiac arrest,” that alone was not sufficient to show that the incident was potentially foreseeable. In short, the appeals court’s decision indicated that there was insufficient evidence for the matter to proceed.
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