The Superme Court of Alabama (“Alabama Supreme Court”) overturned the $20 million medical malpractice wrongful death verdict against the defendant rehabilitation hospital in its opinion filed on September 28, 2018, concluding that “charging the jury as to the hospital standard of care after the only testimony concerning the applicable standard of care was regarding the standard of care for nurses was misleading and erroneous,” and “that the trial court’s charge ‘probably injuriously affected substantial rights’ of [the defendant rehab hospital].”
The Alabama medical malpractice plaintff alleged that the decedent had been treated in a hospital for a persistent urinary tract infection (“UTI”) for two weeks, after which she was transferred to the defendant rehab hospital for two weeks of rehabilitation. It was noted in the decedent’s medical records that she had had adverse reactions to opiate medication years before her admission to the defendant rehab hospital; therefore, her chart duly noted that, and opiate medication was not prescribed for her.
The decedent was found unresponsive in her rehab hospital room. A urinalysis found opiates in her urine. The decedent died at home three months later without fully recovering, due to a stroke.
An Alabama medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit was subsequently filed. After an eight-day trial, the Alabama medical malpractice jury returned its verdict in the amount of $20 million in punitive damages against the defendant rehab hospital for causing the decedent’s death.
Evidence produced at trial showed that neither the defendant rehab hospital’s patient medical records nor its medication-administration records indicated that any opiate was missing or that any opiate not prescribed for the decedent had been administered to her. There also was no evidence indicating that a nurse or any other employee of the defendant had given the decedent an unprescribed opiate. The trial testimony also established that if the decedent’s nonresponsive state was the result of an opiate, then the dosage was more than the typical dose.
The Alabama Supreme Court held that it was appropriate for the trial court to deny the defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law because viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, the evidence presented to the jury constituted substantial circumstantial evidence from which the jury could have inferred that a nurse employed by the defendant administered opiates to the decedent. “Given the fact that [the decedent] was confined to [the defendant rehab hospital] and under the exclusive and constant care, custody, and control of its nurses, this inference is appropriate, even though there was no specific connection or testimony on which to find that a particular nurse had breached the standard of care by administering an opiate or had otherwise acted maliciously.”
However, the Alabama Supreme Court held that the trial court should have granted the defendant’s motion for a new trial: “We have reviewed the trial court’s charge to the jury in its entirety, and we conclude that charging the jury as to the hospital standard of care after the only testimony concerning the applicable standard of care was regarding the standard of care for nurses was misleading and erroneous” and “that the trial court’s charge ‘probably injuriously affected substantial rights’ of [the defendant rehabilitation hospital].”
Source HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Gadsden, LLC v. Regina Honts, as personal representative of the Estate of Doris Green, deceased (Appeal from Etowah Circuit Court: CV-13-900745), 1160045.
If you or a loved one may have been injured as a result of medical negligence at a rehab hospital in Alabama or in another U.S. state, you should promptly consult with an Alabama medical malpractice lawyer, or a medical malpractice lawyer in your state, who may investigate your rehab medicine medical malpractice claim for you and represent you or your loved one in a rehab medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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