Louisiana Supreme Court Changes Apportionment of Fault in Medical Malpractice Case

Hospitals, their staff, and doctors must treat patients in accordance with an established “standard of care.” A standard of care is generally the amount of care a reasonable person would exercise in a particular situation. For doctors and nurses this means that they must act in a manner similar to a reasonable person with similar training and skills in that profession. They must conform their conduct to the customs of their profession.
In the seminal case, Belinda and Jonathon Johnson (“the plaintiffs”) filed a lawsuit against Morehouse General Hospital and Ms. Johnson’s treating doctor. The plaintiffs alleged that the negligent care provided by the treating doctor and the hospital staff to Ms. Johnson resulted in injuries to plaintiffs’ son.
Belinda Johnson is an insulin-dependent diabetic and, because of this condition, her pregnancy was considered high-risk. In such high-risk pregnancies, delivery is usually accomplished through a C-section once the baby’s lungs have sufficiently developed. When Ms. Johnson was approximately 36 1/2 weeks pregnant, she made an appointment with her treating doctor because she had become concerned about the baby’s health. Over the course of the next four days, Ms. Johnson received care from Morehouse Hospital staff and her treating doctor because of continuing concerns regarding the Ms. Johnson’s baby. According to the trial court jury findings, both the Morehouse Hospital staff and the treating doctor were negligent in their care of Ms. Johnson. Ms. Johnson’s son was born with brain damage and cerebral palsy which were caused by lack of oxygen to the brain during the delivery process.
The jury found that the actions of the hospital staff and the treating doctor fell below the applicable standard of care which resulted in injury, loss, and damage to the Johnson’s son. A determination of fault in a medical malpractice suit requires a fact-specific analysis in each case. Based on the evidence presented, the jury apportioned 80% of the fault to Morehouse hospital and 20% of the fault to the treating physician. This finding was appealed. The court of appeal found that “the jury was manifestly erroneous” in its findings and re-apportioned the fault, finding Morehouse Hospital 20% at fault and the treating physician 80% at fault. The Louisiana Supreme Court reviewed the case to determine if the court of appeal properly modified the jury verdict.

When a party brings a medical malpractice lawsuit against a doctor or a hospital, that party, known as the plaintiff, must establish that 1) the established standard of care governing the doctor’s and/or hospital staff’s actions; 2) the doctor and/or staff failed to practice within that standard of care and therefore acted negligently; and 3) that the doctor and/or staff’s actions were the cause of the resulting injuries to the plaintiff.
Nurses are held to the same standard of care as doctors. In an action against a hospital, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the hospital staff provided sub-standard care which resulted in injury to the plaintiff. In cases where two or more parties are accused of causing injury to the plaintiff, a jury may apportion the fault among the parties accused, based upon each party’s relative negligence. A party may be relieved of its responsibility for its negligence, if after that party’s conduct has ceased, but before the plaintiff has suffered injury, an intervening cause, such as another’s negligence, comes into play and alone causes the plaintiff’s injuries. However, if the original party should have known that his or her negligence could result in injury, he or she will still be liable for negligence, even if there is an intervening cause. If a jury finds that multiple parties are at fault for a plaintiff’s injuries and that case is later appealed to a higher court, and that court of appeals finds that the jury’s apportionment of fault is “‘clearly wrong,’” that court should adjust the award using certain factors.

In the Johnson’s case, the Louisiana Supreme Court used the factors laid out in a 1985 Louisiana Supreme Court case, Watson v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Insurance Co., to reapportion the fault between the treating doctor and the hospital after finding that the jury’s apportioning 80% of the fault to the hospital and 20% of the fault to the physician was incorrect based on the evidence presented. As stated in the supreme court’s decision, the five factors an appellate court should consider in determining the degree of fault are: “(1) whether the conduct resulted from inadvertence or involved
an awareness of the danger; (2) how great a risk was created by the conduct; (3) the
significance of what was sought by the conduct; (4) the capacities of the actor,
whether superior or inferior; and (5) any extenuating circumstances which might
require the actor to proceed in haste without proper thought.” After weighing these five factors, the court reapportioned the fault, allocating 50% to the doctor and 50% to the hospital.

This case demonstrates the importance of facts and court discretion in the awarding of damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit. The evidence regarding individual negligence, and the manner in which that evidence is presented, is very important to both trial court and appellate court proceedings. Not having the proper legal representation may lead to such issues being mishandled and a ruling less favorable than you deserve.

If you feel that you may be a victim of medical malpractice please call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005. Our attorneys can help save you time and money.