Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Friday, April 3, 2020

'Game changer,' $2.5m punitive affirmance elucidates 'gross negligence' in medmal

The Massachusetts Appeals Court in late February affirmed an award of $2.5m in punitive damages in a case of death from botched laparoscopic surgery for a hiatal hernia.  In affirming, the Court reiterated terms and circumstances that allow a jury to differentiate "gross negligence" from mere negligence in the medical context.

According to the court opinion, Laura Parsons died after laparoscopic surgery to repair her hiatal hernia resulted in surgical tacks penetrating her pericardium, the membrane surrounding the heart.  The jury laid blame squarely on defendants surgeon, nurse, and employer for tacks having been inserted in the diaphragm too close to heart tissue.  Parsons died of cardiac arrest two days after surgery, and an autopsy observed "puncture marks on the posterior aspect of the heart."

In addition to $2.6m in compensatory damages, the jury charged the surgeon with $2.5m in punitive damages for "gross negligence," the threshold for punitive damages in medical malpractice in Massachusetts.  The Appeals Court affirmed.  Mass. Lawyers Weekly called the decision a "game changer" in favor of punitive damages for medmal plaintiffs (Mar. 5, 2020, pay wall).

An issue on appeal was the jury instruction on "gross negligence."  More than negligence and less than recklessness, "gross negligence" is a familiar yet elusive norm in Anglo-American common law.  The Appeals Court in part faulted the surgeon's counsel for failing to state objection to the usual jury instruction on the standard, though the court seemed content with the instruction on its merits.  The court observed, "While drawing the line between ordinary negligence and gross negligence can be difficult, 'the distinction [between them] is well established and must be observed, lest all negligence be gradually absorbed into the classification of gross negligence [citations omitted]."

The court concluded, "The evidence as a whole permitted the jury to find that [Dr.] Ameri's use of the tacker in Parsons's surgery manifested many of the common indicia of gross negligence. See Rosario v. Vasconcellos ... ([Mass.] 1953), quoting Lynch ... [Mass. 1936] ("some of the more common indicia of gross negligence are set forth as 'deliberate inattention,' 'voluntary incurring of obvious risk,' 'impatience of reasonable restraint,' or 'persistence in a palpably negligent course of conduct over an appreciable period of time'").

The case is Parsons v. Ameri, No. 18-P-1373 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 26, 2020) (Justia).  Justice Massing wrote for a unanimous panel with Sacks and Hand, JJ.

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