How Do You Pass Summary Judgment in a Medical Malpractice Case?

blur-car-caution-dash-163945-1024x683When a loved one is injured or dies at the hands of another, the fictitious reality that exists in movies and television often shows the protagonists immediately going to court to ensure justice is served. In real life, however, not everyone makes it to court, even when it seems like justice demands it. Sometimes parties settle, other times the case is dropped, and many times, it is decided that there just isn’t enough there to require a trial.  This was the case for a 2015 medical malpractice lawsuit filed in the 19th Judicial District Court for the Parish of East Baton Rouge. 

In May of 2010, MH—while pregnant with twins—was in a severe motor vehicle accident. She was first taken to a hospital from the scene of the accident. Tragically, MH died at the hospital on August 25, 2010. She was survived by her three minor children, RH, Jr., AH, and DH. On behalf of these three, their tutor, SS, filed a malpractice lawsuit on March 2, 2015 against the State of Louisiana, through the Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, doing business as Earl K. Long Medical Center.

The plaintiff claimed that Ms. MH died of an overdose of meperidine while at Earl K. Long Medical Center. On December 16, 2015, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment—a motion for judgment as a matter of law rather than on the merits—and the District Court granted the motion and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed the ruling by the trial court.

Why was the motion granted? In Louisiana, in order for a motion for summary judgment to be granted, the motion, memorandum, and any documents entered to support the motion must show that there is no genuine issue of material fact. La. C.C.P. art 966(A)(3). The District Court evaluates the supportive evidence to determine if there are any material facts that need to be tried and all inferences drawn from the evidence are viewed in favor of the party that did not file the motion for summary judgment. Willis v. Medders, 775 So.2d 1049 (La. 2000). Whether a fact is material or not is determined by the substantive, applicable law for the case. For this case, the substantive, applicable law was the Medical Malpractice Act.

Under the Medical Malpractice Act, a medical malpractice claim against a qualified health provider must be submitted to a medical review panel and the panel must generate an expert opinion on the matter. La. R.S. 40: 1299.41. In this case, the defendant was a qualified health provider and the medical review panel provided an expert opinion in 2014. Unfortunately for the plaintiff, the opinion stated that there was not enough evidence to say that the defendant failed to meet the standard of care when Ms. MH was hospitalized, and that the meperidine dose was proper.

What were the plaintiff’s options at this point? To succeed in a medical malpractice claim, she would need to prove the standard of care for the specific health provider, the provider violated this standard, and this violation caused the defendant’s actions and plaintiff’s damages. For a hospital, the standard of care is to provide the type of care that the specific patient needs for his or her condition and to protect the patient from internal and external dangers. Kirby v. State, 174 So. 3d 1 (La. Ct. App. 2014). To show that the hospital owed a duty of care, negligently breached that duty, and caused injury because of that breach, expert testimony is required unless the negligence is obvious enough to a lay person to not need the expert testimony.

 For its motion for summary judgment, the defendant used an affidavit—sworn statement—from expert Dr. DB, who was a member of the medical panel. In addition to this opinion, the defendant introduced evidence that showed the plaintiff’s claim was factually weak. When the plaintiff had to bring evidence to support her allegations, all that was submitted was an affidavit from pharmacist MDC. The affidavit discussed the conditions meperidine should be used, but did not discuss the standard of care or how the defendant breached it. Because of this, the affidavit did not sufficiently establish causation between the defendant’s malpractice and Ms. MH’s death.

The plaintiff argued that the defendant’s negligence was so obvious that a lay person could recognize it without an expert witness’s opinion. The Court of Appeal did not agree; the issue of a meperidine overdose was too complex for a lay person to determine without the need of an expert witness. The plaintiff then tried to argue that the defendant did not attach any evidence to its motion for summary judgment at the hearing for the motion and therefore it could not be considered by the Court of Appeal. However, the plaintiff relied on a 2013 case that used a version of a statute that had since been amended. The statute in effect at the time of the defendant’s motion stated that the evidence the defendant used could be admitted unless it was excluded by an objection. Because the plaintiff did not file a motion to strike or use an opposition memorandum to raise any objections, the defendant’s evidence was admitted. Due to the evidence presented by the defendant and the plaintiff’s lack of objections or supportive evidence, the Court of Appeal held that the District Court properly granted the motion for summary judgment.

Ms. MH’s death was a tragedy and it is understandable that the belief that the hospital could have prevented it would trigger a lawsuit. This case illustrates that in medical malpractice cases, there are steps that have to be followed and elements to be proven in order to advance past summary judgment. When a loved one has been hurt, all these steps and elements may seem overwhelming and unfair, but they do have a place in the legal system; with the help of a good lawyer, they can be understood, navigated, and even used to advance the case. 

Additional Sources: SUCCESSION OF RICHARD JAMES HICKMAN, SYLVIA SMITH, AS TUTOR FOR RICHARD JAMES HICKMAN, JOSEPH HICKMAN AND DARLENE HICKMAN, AND SUCCESSION OF MONICA LYNN BOUTTE HICKMAN  VERSUS THE STATE OF LOUISIANA THROUGH THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS OF LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY AGRICULTURAL AND MECHANICAL COLLEGE, LSU HEALTH SCIENCE CENTER, LSU HEALTH CARE SERVICES DIVISION, AND EARL K. LONG MEDICAL CENTER

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Sadie Gibson

Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Medical Malpractice: Louisiana District Court Erred in Granting Motion for Summary Judgment for Doctor-Defendants