A rollover car accident transformed into a medical malpractice action when a man seeking treatment for his injuries allegedly had a piece of glass left in his scalp over a period of several months.
In the case, Li v. Mojaddidi, Cal. Ct. App. (2015), the plaintiff was involved in a rollover car accident, as a result of which he suffered cuts to the left side of his body, face, and scalp. He was transported to the emergency room of a nearby hospital. A CT scan of the plaintiff’s brain was performed. A preliminary report regarding the scan stated that the plaintiff had a laceration to the scalp and an “embedded small foreign body.” While unknown at that time, the object was later determined to be a small piece of glass.
During the examination of the plaintiff, the treating doctor explored the area where the foreign body was depicted on the CT scan. According to the doctor, he could not find the foreign body and felt that further exploration of the area would cause more harm that good. According to the plaintiff, his medical records revealed that the doctor was unaware of the foreign body when he conducted the examination. The area was thereafter cleaned and stapled. The plaintiff was discharged and told to follow up with a primary care doctor within the following week to 10 days.
The plaintiff did see a doctor to have his staples removed, and his scalp appeared to be healing well. Nobody apparently noticed the glass embedded in the plaintiff’s scalp.
Approximately two months later, a hairstylist cutting the plaintiff’s hair noticed the fragment sticking out of his head. The plaintiff went to a hospital the following day, and he had the glass fragment removed with no reported difficulty or further complications.
The plaintiff then instituted an action for medical malpractice. The defendant doctor filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing there was no triable issue of fact regarding whether he breached the applicable standard of care or the proximately caused injury suffered by the plaintiff.
In support of his motion, the defendant submitted two expert declarations, both stating that the defendant met the applicable standard of care in treating the plaintiff, despite his having been unable to locate and remove the small glass fragment on the day of the accident. A statement by the second doctor stated that there was unlikely to be any proximate injury to the plaintiff, and that the headaches he reportedly suffered were a result of the head injury suffered due to the initial rollover car accident.
The plaintiff opposed the summary judgment motion and filed objections to some of the defendant’s evidence. However, the plaintiff did not offer any declarations from medical experts. While acknowledging that expert testimony is typically required, he argued that testimony was not necessary in this case because the alleged negligence would have been obvious to a layperson.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion. It also sustained the plaintiff’s evidentiary objections as being used to establish the underlying facts, but it overruled them regarding the information the experts relied on in order to form their opinions. It then ruled that the experts sufficiently established that the defendant had satisfied the applicable standard of care and did not cause or contribute to the plaintiff’s injuries. It further found that there was no triable issue of material fact on these matters because the plaintiff failed to submit a contrary expert opinion, and it therefore entered a judgment of dismissal.
The elements for a successful medical malpractice case under California law are: (1) the duty of the professional to use the same standard of care that those in his profession typically use; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) a proximate causal connection between the negligent conduct and the resulting injury; and (4) actual harm arising out of the professional negligence. Proving these elements typically requires expert testimony, except when the issue is within the common understanding of a layperson.
The court rejected the plaintiff’s objections to evidence, including his argument that expert testimony was unnecessary. It found that the requirement of expert witness testimony in medical malpractice cases was only waived in certain very rare circumstances. For example, both of the defendant’s expert witnesses stated that a small glass fragment like the one embedded in the plaintiff’s scalp would have been nearly impossible to see inside the wound, and the court stated that was not a matter that would be likely to be known by a layperson.
The court found that there was no triable issue of fact regarding the relevant standard of care nor whether the defendant was responsible for causing the plaintiff’s injuries. Therefore, the judgment was affirmed.
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