As we have explored in numerous prior posts, a doctor or other healthcare provider owes his or her patient a duty to meet the standard of care applicable to the patient’s situation. The failure to follow the standard of care points to the doctor’s negligence which, in the case of the death of the patient, can give rise to a claim of “lost chance of survival” for the spouse or children of the deceased. In a lost chance of survival action, the plaintiff “does not have to shoulder the unreasonable burden of proving that the patient would have lived had proper treatment been
given.” Rather, the plaintiff must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the doctor’s negligent conduct “denied the patient a chance of survival.” In other words, a lost chance of survival claim will not be successful if the patient would have died anyway due to causes unrelated to the doctor’s actions; the plaintiff must tie the doctor’s negligence to the death of the decedent. Whether a plaintiff carries this burden is a question of fact reserved for the jury.
Third Circuit Court of Appeal recently reviewed a jury verdict on this question in the case of Skinner v. Christus St. Francis Cabrini Hospital. Robert Skinner was admitted to Christus Hospital in Alexandria on August 17, 2000 for an elective hemorrhoidectomy and partial sphincterotomy. He died the following morning after spending the night in the hospital. His wife, Pamela Skinner, filed suit against the hospital and Stephen Ford, the nurse who had charge of Mr. Skinner from 7:00 PM to 7:00 AM during the night of his stay. At the trial, various witnesses from the hospital explained that the surgery had gone well. The only reason Mr. Skinner stayed overnight was because of his high level of anxiety over the procedure. Mr. Skinner had a history of mental and physical problems, and was taking numerous prescription medications to address his depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart burn. Several members of the hospital staff reviewed Mr. Skinner’s medication list on separate occasions, and each time he neglected to mention that he had taken a particular antidepressant prior to coming to the hospital. In fact, the toxicology screening that was conducted as part of an autopsy revealed dangerously high levels of the drug in his system–a concentration which the medical experts in the case agreed was “known to kill.” Nevertheless, the jury found that the evidence supported the conclusion that the hospital and Nurse Ford failed to properly monitor Mr. Skinner after the surgery, Therefore, the defendants “deviated from the appropriate standard of care in the medical treatment of Mr. Skinner,” causing a lost chance of survival. The jury awarded Mrs. Skinner $250,000 in general damages. The defendants appealed, arguing that the jury erred in finding the plaintiff had carried her burden.
The Third Circuit reviewed the record at length and found that Nurse Ford and other hospital staff had properly checked Mr. Skinner’s vital signs per the hospital’s established schedule throughout the night. It also noted that Mr. Skinner was given several doses of pain medicine to provide him comfort after the surgery. These drugs were administered with the hospital staff’s knowledge of the other medications Mr. Skinner had identified that he had taken. It was undisputed that no one at the hospital knew or could have known about the anti-depressant Mr. Skinner had taken but not revealed during several pre-op interviews. The autopsy further revealed that Mr. Skinner’s death was caused by heart failure, which the defendants’ experts linked to the exceedingly high level of the anti-depressant in his blood. One of the defendants’ experts explained that death would have been sudden and without warning, such that an examination only 15 minutes prior to death would likely have revealed nothing unusual even to a careful and experienced practitioner. Another expert opined that “Mr. Skinner would have looked absolutely fine five minutes before he died.” In light of this evidence, and Mrs. Skinner’s “fail[ure] to produce a scintilla of evidence” that pointed to the hospital’s negligence, the court concluded, “we are convinced that the jury manifestly erred in its determination that Christus Hospital/Nurse Ford’s negligence caused Mr. Skinner a lost chance of survival.” Accordingly, the court vacated the trial court’s judgment that awarded Mrs. Skinner $250,000 in general damages for the lost chance of survival.
The Skinner case, while tragic, offers a reminder to plaintiffs that their burden in a lost chance of survival action is not a light one. The theory of recovery can only be employed where a healthcare provider’s negligence played a direct role in denying the decedent the treatment that could have saved his life. As the Skinner case demonstrates, healthcare providers are not held to a standard that requires them to respond to complications about which they could not have known or reasonably discovered.
If you have been injured due to the negligence of a healthcare provider, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 to speak with an attorney who can evaluate your case and help you obtain the recovery you deserve.