A medical malpractice claim in Natchitoches, Louisiana was dismissed by the District Court, but on appeal, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, keeping the claim alive. What led to the different outcomes was a difference in interpretation of the applicable Louisiana statute.
The claim was brought by the husband and children of 62 year old Margaret Benjamin, who was treated for abdominal pain by Dr. William Zeichner at Natchitoches Parish Hospital. Dr. Zeichner performed a surgery, and seven days later Mrs. Benjamin returned to her home in Lynwood, California. Enduring frequent vomiting, she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of St. Francis Medical Center a few days later. The source of the problem was a small bowel construction. Tragically, she passed away a few weeks later.
Mrs. Benjamin’s family brought a medical malpractice claim against Dr. Zeichner, alleging the small bowel construction that caused her death was due to Dr. Zeichner’s manipulation of her bowel. They also argued that Dr. Zeichner’s surgery was below the standard of care. They offered an expert witness, Dr. James Shamblin, to testify that Dr. Zeichner breached the standard of care in this case, causing Mrs. Benjamin’s death.
The first court responded by excluding the expert because Louisiana law requires such an expert to have an active license to practice medicine, or be a graduate from an accredited medical school. Dr. Shamblin’s license had expired by the time plaintiffs offered him as an expert, and although there was no dispute that he graduated from Tulane Medical School, plaintiffs could not prove that it was an accredited medical school at the time of Dr. Shamblin’s graduation, in 1958. Without their expert witness, Mrs. Benjamin’s family had no case.
However, unlike the District Court, the Third Circuit decided that Dr. Shamblin could not be disqualified simply because the accreditation status of Tulane Medical School in 1958 was not established in the case. Dr. Shamblin had submitted an affidavit before his license expired, and according to the Third Circuit’s interpretation of the state statute, there is no requirement that the expert be licensed at the time of his testimony. The Court found that because his conclusions regarding Dr. Zeichner were reached while Dr. Shamblin was still licensed, he should not have been disqualified.
All that differed between the courts were their interpretations of when the expert was required to be licensed – at the time the claim arose, or at the time he was testifying. In this case, Dr. Shamblin was licensed when the claim arose but not when he was going to testify. That was enough for the Third Circuit to admit him as an expert.
Predicting how a judge will interpret statutes is difficult even for lawyers. And yet it was the court’s interpretation of the relevant Louisiana statute which made all the difference, allowing Mrs. Benjamin’s husband and children to continue with their claim. Lawyers can influence how courts interpret statutes by presenting persuasive arguments as to the general intent of the statute, presenting research on how the statute has been interpreted in particular cases, and presenting theories for why various provisions within the statute should or should not interact with each other. As you can imagine, getting the best possible legal team is essential to successfully navigating statutes.
The events here are inherently tragic and have permanently changed the lives of all involved. Unfortunately, whether doctors deviate from the standard of care or not, injuries or deaths related to surgical procedures occur all too often. The court system, while never fully compensating families for such injuries or deaths, functions to hold doctors accountable and provide injured parties’ loved ones an opportunity to be heard.