California Court of Appeals Reviews Summary Judgment in Favor of Doctors and Healthcare System in Professional Negligence Lawsuit

In a wrongful death lawsuit, the California Court of Appeals addressed the standard of care applicable to medical staff, including physicians and surgeons as well as nurses and hospitals in general.

Yvonne Lattimore brought a wrongful death action against the doctors and the medical system at Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System (Salinas Valley Systems) for the care and treatment of her father, Albert Lattimore. Ms. Lattimore appeals the trial court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

The issue on appeal is whether the trial court improperly granted the motion for summary judgment. Ms. Lattimore alleges she presented evidence opposing those motions and raised a triable issue of fact as to whether the treatment of her father violated the applicable standards of care.

The facts of this case demonstrate that Mr. Lattimore underwent surgeries to address his internal bleeding. Dr. Carlson evaluated the bleeding and performed an esophagogastroduodenoscopy, with the consent of Ms. Lattimore, who held the durable power of attorney for Albert’s health care.

Mr. Lattimore suffered internal bleeding, and Dr. Dickey consulted the family first about a potential surgery and then later explained his reasons for canceling the surgery. Mr. Lattimore went into cardiac arrest and was resuscitated. His family advised staff they did not want further resuscitative measures taken, and Mr. Lattimore died soon afterward from another cardiac arrest.

In her second amended complaint, Ms. Lattimore alleges that the defendants negligently examined and treated Mr. Lattimore, resulting in his death.

Dr. Dickey moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Ms. Lattimore could not establish his breach of the standard of care in treating Mr. Lattimore and that any breach did not cause his death. In support, Dr. Dickey submitted the declaration of a general surgeon, in whose opinion Dr. Dickey’s decision to cancel the surgery met the standard of care and in fact was the preferred treatment plan.

Dr. Carlson also moved for summary judgment on the ground that Ms. Lattimore was not able to establish he breached the standard of care. He submitted the declaration of a board-certified gastroenterologist, who stated that the treatment complied with the standard of care applicable to a gastroenterologist.

Finally, Salinas Valley Systems moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Ms. Lattimore could not show they breached the standard of care. In support, they submitted the declaration of a registered nurse and staff, who stated that the standard of care had been complied with in treating Mr. Lattimore.

In opposing the motions for summary judgment, Ms. Lattimore submitted the declaration of Mr. Lattimore’s primary physician. He stated that surgery should have been performed immediately, once medical providers were aware of Mr. Lattimore’s critical blood loss condition.

On appeal, the court stated the rule that summary judgment is to be granted when a moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In reviewing the cause of action for wrongful death, the court stated that the elements include negligence or another wrongful act, resulting in death, and damages shown through pecuniary losses suffered by the heirs. Here, Ms. Lattimore alleged the tort was professional negligence. This requires showing a duty to use the same level of skill that other members of the profession possess, a breach of this duty, proximate causation, and damages.

The standard of care is the main issue in a malpractice action, and it can only be proven through the use of expert testimony. Drs. Dickey and Carlson were required to use the skill, prudence, and diligence held by gastroenterologists and general surgeons.

Turning to the evidence of the applicable standard of care, the court stated that declarations were used in support of the summary judgment motions. The defendants met their burden of showing the applicable standard of care was met. The burden then shifted to Ms. Lattimore to show evidence raising a triable issue of fact on the standard of care issues.

The court stated the Evidence Code requirements for testifying experts. The question is whether the witness has sufficient skill or experience so that his testimony assists the jury. The appeal court stated it was error for the trial court to hold the qualifications of Dr. Turner, Ms. Lattimore’s expert, insufficient and deem him not competent to state his opinion on the standard of care.  His qualifications demonstrate skill and experience, despite his lack of experience as a gastroenterologist. His declaration was sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact regarding deviations from the standard of care by Dr. Dickey and Dr. Carlson. Neither doctor established he was entitled to entry of judgment on this element of the tort of professional negligence. Dr. Carlson moved for summary judgment only on the ground of having met his standard of care, and the judgment in his favor must be reversed.

In terms of Salinas Valley Systems, Dr. Turner does not indicate he holds a certification or expertise relevant to the standards of care attributable to nurses, hospitals, or hospital employees. Ms. Lattimore did not present evidence raising a triable issue of fact as to Salinas Valley System’s standard of care, and the trial court properly granted their motion for summary judgment.

Dr. Dickey had based his motion for summary judgment on the grounds of causation and a discovery order. The court held Dr. Dickey was entitled to summary judgment on either of these grounds. The discovery order included Ms. Lattimore’s admission that Dr. Dickey had met the applicable standard of care through his care and treatment of Mr. Lattimore.

The appeals court affirmed the judgments in favor of Dr. Dickey and Salinas Valley. The judgment in favor of Dr. Carlson was reversed.

In this case, the court emphasized the differing professional standards of care for doctors and surgeons, as well as nurses and hospitals. At Sharifi Law, we have years of experience representing injured individuals in medical malpractice and wrongful death cases. Contact us for a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Rules that Statute of Limitations is Tolled Upon Payment in Medical Malpractice Action, Southern California Lawyer Blog, August 20, 2015

California Court of Appeals Rules in Case Alleging Premature Declaration of Death, Southern California Lawyer Blog, March 13, 2015

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